Legal aspects of burial archaeology

A few of the main points which apply in English Law:

  • there is no property in a corpse, so it cannot be stolen;
  • it is a common law offence to disinter a body without lawful authority;
  • it is an offence in ecclesiastical law to remove the remains of the dead from consecrated ground without a faculty.

Section 25 of the Burial Act of 1857 applies to most cases of exhumation.

  • this states that, with certain exceptions, 'it shall not be lawful to remove any body, or the remains of any body, which may have been interred in any place of burial, without licence' and without following any conditions prescribed in the licence.
  • licences are obtained by writing to the Under Secretary of State at the Home Office and supplying requested details.
  • if bones are removed without licence, the offence is committed by the person who actually removes the remains, and a fine may be charged for each and every body.
  • no offence is committed where a body is removed from one consecrated ground to another under faculty (an authority granted under ecclesiastical law).
  • a faculty is nearly always required for the exhumation of human remains from a place of burial which is within the jurisdiction of the Church of England.
  • a faculty is obtained through the Consistory Court by petition, and notice of the petition will normally have to be displayed in an appropriate public place beforehand.

The Disused Burial Grounds (Amendment) Act 1981 and the Pastoral Measure 1983.

  • the development of a disused burial ground is restricted by the Disused Burial Grounds Act 1884.
  • definition of a disused burial ground - 'any churchyard, cemetery or other ground, whether consecrated or not, which has at any time been set apart for the purpose of interment, and which is no longer used for interments'.
  • this does not include intramural burials within a church building.
  • the 1983 measure defines a burial ground as 'any land set apart and consecrated for the purpose of burials whether or not burials have taken place therein'.
  • the 1981 Act and the 1983 Measure regulate the removal of human remains and tombstones or memorials which may be affected by the development (the former to non-Church of England, the latter to Church of England burial grounds.
  • other burial grounds are covered by the original 1884 Act, but development is generally not prohibited if no one has been buried on the land in the last 50 years.
  • notice of the proposed development must be given by the landowner in local newspapers and at the site.

The Faculty Jurisdiction Measure 1964

  • tombstones and other memorials belong to the person who erected them, and after his death to the heirs of the person in whose memory the monument was erected.
  • grave goods - generally these belong to the landowner, but in post-medieval or early modern burial sites there may be claims to the effects from the personal representatives or relatives of the deceased.

Notes taken from Garratt-Frost 1992.

Archaeological techniques

Non-intrusive techniques

Churchyard surveys

  • this is something that anyone can carry out given a little time and a suitable local churchyard, particularly if it is threatened with redundancy or development.
  • gravestones and tombs can be seen as the latest archaeological layer of a churchyard, and should be recorded in detail (position, inscriptions, decoration, etc.) if the archive of data is to be of use in the future.
  • can be a starting point for genealogical, art historical and social history studies, or even a useful project for older school children, local history groups, etc.
  • a plan of the graveyard is a necessity and should be made before recording starts. Graves can then be assigned numbers which can be located on the plan.
  • stones should be recorded photographically and on a proforma (e.g. Jones 1984).
  • analysis of results and publication in a local journal or, at the very least, deposition of the archive at the local record office should be the final goal.

Aerial photography

  • useful in locating earlier forms of funerary monument, although flat cemeteries rarely show up with this technique.
  • aerial photography has been particularly useful over the last few dry summers in locating unknown barrow sites.


  • unlikely specifically to identify areas of burial, although controlled metal detecting has revealed plough-disturbed pagan Saxon cemeteries.
  • ploughed-out barrows may produce some evidence in the plough soil, particularly worked flints and occasional prehistoric pottery, but interpretation would probably be aided by aerial photography.

Ground-penetrating radar

  • this method has proved successful in locating individual burials.
  • it uses electro-magnetic pulses which are reflected back by soil surfaces that differ in water content.
  • produces a two-dimensional plot showing reflection delay time against horizontal distance.
  • burials in simple stratigraphy can be identified from the contrast between the fill and surrounding soil.
  • the technique works best on sandy, high-resistivity soils.

Excavation techniques

Excavating a skeleton

Example of an Early Saxon cemetery in Lakenheath

  • evaluation by trenching
  • removal of topsoil by machine
  • open area excavation
  • cleaning of site
  • visibility of grave fill against natural subsoil
  • excavation of individual graves including grave goods
  • recording: levels, context sheets, plans and grave profiles, overall grave plan with other non-cemetery features.

Other types of site may be more complicated

  • e.g. urban graveyards - intercutting graves and deep stratigraphy, but these allow for a greater possibility of phasing sequences of graves.
  • barrow cemetery - main methods of excavating are quarter sections of mounds, or sections of the surrounding ditch if this is all that survives, with excavation of central and other burial pits.

Post-excavation techniques

Analysis of cemeteries involves three major areas of analysis: graves and associated structures, grave goods, and human remains (for information on the latter, see Human Bone Homepage).

Analysis of graves and associated structures involves:

  • study of grave shapes and sizes in relation to the burial - too large or small?
  • depth, fill, profile of grave cut
  • cataloguing and interpretation of burial position and associated grave goods
  • cataloguing any structures such as mounds or postholes
  • making a Harris matrix of relationships between burials and other features
  • looking at types and positions of grave goods
  • using the demographic information provided by the bone specialist to reconstruct the burial population
  • phasing of the cemetery, based on all information (dated artefacts, orientation, position in the cemetery, body position, depth, relationships with other features and burials etc.)
  • production of publication drawings and text
  • long process, especially for large cemeteries, as the same aspects have to be covered for every grave - lots of computer work to look for patterns
  • for most sites, we go through several stages: preparation of archive, assessment of potential for further analysis, actual analysis and final report

Analysis of grave goods involves some or all of the following:

  • conservation stage - x-rays of metal objects and stabilisation if required
  • detailed catalogue of all objects by grave or by type/function, including finding parallels from other sites, and dating
  • record drawings of all objects, and publication drawings of some
  • employing specialists for various artefact types
  • scientific analysis - e.g. metallographic study of weapons to determine how made
  • analysis of samples taken from the graves or bodies - pollen, macrofossils

Preservation and taphonomic studies

Taphonomy is the study of site formation processes (how an archaeological site is formed over time and the factors affecting this formation). The following is a summary of some aspects of this study in relation to burial archaeology. The factors listed below all have a bearing on the preservation of the archaeological deposit, its excavation and its interpretation.

Factors affecting method of burial:

  • Cultural
    • religious beliefs and practices - Indonesian skull
    • tradition
    • manner of death - hanging
  • Economic and Political
    • cost of funeral
    • social status e.g. at Sutton Hoo
    • selection by others, e.g. Edward the Confessor's tomb
    • movement of people
    • availability of labour
  • Environmental
    • availability of suitable site - e.g. Saxon burial in floor of Fishbourne Roman Palace
    • space in graveyard
    • numbers of deaths occurring in a period
    • soil type - easy to dig a deep grave?
    • weather and season - e.g. winter weather causes problems, eg permafrost
    • time - how quickly does burial have/need to occur
    • disease
  • Familial
    • relationship with deceased - close family, extended family, no relation
    • need to be buried close to relatives or partners
    • religious rules - burial of monks away from genetic family

Factors affecting preservation:

  • Biological
    • body shape and size
    • age at death
    • bone size, shape and density
  • Physical and Environmental
    • depth of burial
    • burial environment: water, soil type, temperature, oxygen
    • chalk, excellent for bone
    • sand and gravel very acid so poor for bone but may preserve some organic material including body and wood stains
    • waterlogged conditions - bog bodies
    • external environment - climate, temperature
    • flora and fauna present in the grave
    • deep ploughing at a later date
  • Cultural
    • burial method - stone or wood coffin, plaster burial etc.
    • presence of grave goods
    • intentional preservation - embalming, mummification
    • intentionally increasing speed of decay
    • exposure and excarnation prior to burial
    • time before burial
    • disturbance by later burials and effect this has on decay, disarticulation, reburial
  • Archaeological
    • time since burial
    • methods of excavation
    • processing and storage

Factors affecting cremated individuals:

  • degree of burning
  • degree of crushing
  • collection (both after cremation and during excavation)
  • choice of scattering or burial
  • burial in the ground or in a container - perishable or non-perishable?

Sample variation:

  • how much of the original cemetery population remains?
  • how much is excavated?
  • excavation does not normally produce a random sample

Interpretation and Conclusions

The interpretation of cemeteries and associated structures

In summary:

The aims of cemetery analysis are to:

  • determine the sequence of development of the burial ground
  • estimate of size of community in each generation of use
  • reconstruct social status

The methods generally used are to:

  • compare grave orientations
  • analyse body positions
  • study demographical information from human bone
  • compare assemblages of grave goods
  • look for patterns in the spatial distribution of all of these aspects

Other methods and approaches are used for specific types of cemetery or burial:

  • scattered disarticulated bones can sometimes be matched to their pair or to an adjoining bone to look at movement of bones within Neolithic long barrows - e.g. Hazelton
  • when dealing with early prehistory we can, with care, use ethnographic parallels when trying to explain the lack of bodies - e.g. excarnation practiced by some native Americans, or sky burial in Tibet.

For the wider view of people in the past, we can look at various aspects through time:

  • e.g. social status - large tombs in the early Neolithic were probably for community use, although inclusion in them may indicate some 'special' status.
  • compare this with the individual wealthy burials of the Bronze Age
  • grave goods with individual burials in later periods seem to reflect a growth in material wealth amongst small groups of elite individuals - e.g. Sutton Hoo helmet and sceptre.
  • ritual practices such as decapitation seem to have been used at some periods but were not always popular.
  • clustering of burials in apparently ritual landscapes (e.g. around Stonehenge) may not be the full picture - have to consider changes to the landscape brought about by farming and other land use.


In interpreting death and burial in the past, there are certain factors which we need to consider:

  • present day attitudes to death - how do these affect our interpretations?
  • the relationship of burial with ritual/religion and everyday life
  • how does everyday life affect the choices made for disposal of the body
  • how much did people in the past choose their own funerary rites and how much was determined by relatives, tribal chiefs, religious leaders, etc. - and what impact does this have on our interpretation of an individual's personal status?
  • human behaviour is often erratic
  • we have to accept that there are some things which we will never fully understand.



Anderson, S. and Boyle, K., 1996, Ritual Treatment of Human and Animal Remains. Oxbow.

Bassett, S. (ed.), 1992, Death in Towns: urban responses to the dying and the dead, 100-1600. Leicester University Press.

Merrifield, R., 1987, The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic. Batsford, London.

Parker Pearson, M., 1999, The Archaeology of Death and Burial. Sutton.

Richards, J., 1999, Meet the Ancestors. BBC, London.

Period-based studies


Cunliffe, B., 1995, Iron Age Britain. English Heritage/Batsford, London.

Parker Pearson, M., 1993, Bronze Age Britain. English Heritage/Batsford, London.

Richards, J., 1991, Stonehenge. English Heritage/Batsford, London.

Stringer, C. and Gamble, C., 1993, In Search of the Neanderthals. London: Thames and Hudson.


Salway, P., 1981, Roman Britain. Oxford University Press.

Woodward, A., 1992, Shrines and Sacrifice. English Heritage/Batsford, London.

Saxon and Viking

Hall, R., 1990, Viking Age Archaeology in Britain and Ireland. Shire Publications, Aylesbury.

Richards, J., 1991, Viking Age England. English Heritage/Batsford, London.

Welch, M., 1992, Anglo-Saxon England. English Heritage/Batsford, London.

Medieval and later

Cox, M., 1996, Life and Death in Spitalfields 1700-1850. CBA, York.

Daniell, C., 1997, Death and Burial in Medieval England. Routledge, London.

Rodwell, W., 1989, Church Archaeology. English Heritage/Batsford, London.

Legal Aspects

Garratt-Frost, S., 1992, The Law and Burial Archaeology. Technical Paper 11, Institute of Field Archaeologists, Birmingham.


Barker, P., 1982, Techniques of Archaeological Excavation. Batsford, London. 2nd edition.

Brothwell, D., 1981, Digging Up Bones. British Museum (NH)/ Oxford University Press.

Chamberlain, A., 1994, Human Remains. British Museum Press, London.

Deetz, J. and Dethlefsen, E., 1967 'Death's head, cherub, urn and willow', Natural History 76, 29-37. (Also reprinted in Pearce, S. (ed.), 1994, Interpreting Objects and Collections, Routledge, London.)

Jones, J., 1984, How to record graveyards. CBA/Rescue, London.

Mays, S., 1998, The Archaeology of Human Bones. Routledge, London.


Meaney, A.L. and Hawkes, S.C., 1970, Two Anglo-Saxon Cemeteries at Winnall. Society for Medieval Archaeology Monograph Series No. 4, London.

Stroud, G. and Kemp. R., 1993, Cemeteries of St. Andrew, Fishergate. The Archaeology of York 12/2. York Archaeological Trust/CBA.

Wenham, L.P., 1968, The Romano-British Cemetery at Trentholme Drive, York. HMSO, London.