A Study in Scarlet: A Bioarchaeological Investigation of the Differential Use of Ochre in Burial Practices at Khok Phanom Di, Central Thailand

Change log
Paris, Sarah Elizabeth 

This research investigates whether ochre use in burial practices reflects group identity and group diversity. Cemeteries present a unified space for collective commemoration; however, the diversity of the individuals and practices within enable an understanding of social organisation, and the interplay between personal and group identity. This was examined through the selective use of ochre in funerary practices at Khok Phanom Di, an agricultural transition site dating to 4,000 BP, located in Chonburi Province, Thailand. Powdered ochre was commonly used in prehistoric burial traditions, being spread over the body, resulting in bone staining. Within prehistoric archaeology the practice is inconsistent on both an inter and intra- site level. Occurring on 82% of individuals at Khok Phanom Di over ~500-years, the length of site use enabled an investigation of the changes in ochre practices over time; and whether these developments coincide with osteobiographies, environmental shift, or material culture. The methods used included bone surface mapping and statistical analysis to identify patterns of pigment use in association with differential burial practices, mobility, palaeopathology, and environmental change. Through the skeletal analysis of 152 individuals, a novel method was applied for semi-quantitative recording of pigment distribution. The method divided the skeleton into 521 geometric planes, adjusted for juvenile development. Each plane received a categorical score of ochre area, density, and thickness. Through a collective comparative methodology (CCM), a group of statistical methods, the relationships between the testing mechanism (ochre) and individual categories of data (chronology; osteobiography; palaeopathology; mobility; funerary behaviour; spatial organisation) were investigated. This filtered out statistically insignificant relationships, allowing the significant factors to be analysed as a group. The findings demonstrate a relationship between ochre and age, which changed over time and across social clustering. Adults within the group were shown to have a range of pigment distribution across the body, associated with mortuary phase. The absence of ochre was restricted to the very youngest perinates, those that were least skeletally developed. This differential treatment of perinates informs an understanding of expressions of personhood. The size and length of occupation at the site offers a rare opportunity to access pigment use on a multigenerational and community wide scale, demonstrating new understanding of individual and group identity at Khok Phanom Di. The methods used present a novel way of recording pigment on bone, which has the potential to transform the way ochre is investigated in the burial record.

Foley, Robert
Ochre, Burial practices, Bioarchaeology, Thailand, Southeast Asia, Skeletal mapping
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
St Catharine's College, Cambridge McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research