Missing, Presumed Dead: Searching for infant mortality in excavated historiccemeteries, and finding high casualties in the archaeological record

UoM administered thesis: Phd

  • Authors:
  • Amanda Murphy


Archaeologically excavated historic cemeteries are a unique and largely untapped dataset for answering questions about past populations using empirical methods. One such question centers around the assumptions that infant mortality was high in societies without modern fertility control and that infant remains are more likely to be poorly preserved and recovered from archaeological contexts than adult bones. To assess this, excavated osteological populations of European descent from historic cemeteries (1600-1950 AD) were studied for their age composition as compared to historical records and Model life tables. These datasets were then considered in their taphonomic contexts to determine which factors most affect preservation and recovery. The resulting calculation of the mortality and preservation of each population were compared statistically with traditional high mortality estimates, and appliedexperimentally to cemetery populations with an unknown number of infants and children. Osteologically derived infant mortality was found to range most commonly from 10-35%, with a 10-15% loss between burial and recovery. These figures were found to be useful in assessing early life mortality in more ancient populations. The most unexpected result was the finding that loss of data, and the resulting inability to study osteological questions with excavated historic cemeteries in general, correlated with substandard archaeological methods in some historic cemetery excavations rather than natural forces. A revival of basic, traditional archaeological methodology is necessary to maintain professional ethics; the modernization of cultural resource law in America is needed to facilitate this.


Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
Award date31 Dec 2016

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