Breaking and Making Bodies and Pots

i-6ede53501acac70dcf4f9214caa5b25d-Porträtt mini2 bw.jpgMy dear friend and fellow archaeo-blogger Åsa M. Larsson of Ting & Tankar has sent her PhD thesis off to the printers! This she has done with her supervisor’s blessing, which in Sweden means that she is for all practical purposes a PhD now. The viva is just a ritual and your committee can’t influence the thesis since it’s already been printed.

Åsa’s will take place at 1300 hours on Friday 18 September, in the Geijer auditorium, building 6, Humanities Centre, Engelska Parken, Uppsala, Sweden. Meet me there. As an Aardvarchaeology exclusive, here’s the abstract of Åsa’s as yet not even printed thesis: bleeding-edge osteo-archaeology about the Middle Neolithic B in the Lake Mälaren area, c. 2800-2400 cal BC.

Larsson, Åsa Maria 2009. Breaking and Making Bodies and Pots. Material and Ritual Practices in South Sweden in the Third Millennium BC. Aun 40. Department of Archaeology and Ancient History. Uppsala University.

In South Sweden the third millennium BC is characterised by coastal settlements of marine hunter-gatherers known as the Pitted Ware culture, and inland settlements of the Battle Axe culture. This thesis outlines the history of research of the Middle Neolithic B in general and that of the pottery and burial practices in particular. Material culture must be understood as the result of both conscious preferences and embodied practices: technology can be deliberately cultural just as style can be un-selfconscious routine.

Anthropological and ethno-archaeological research into craft and the transmission of learning in traditional societies shows how archaeologists must take into consideration the interdependence of mind and body when interpreting style, technology and change in prehistory. The pottery crafts of the Pitted Ware and Battle Axe cultures were not just fundamentally different technologically, but even more so in the attitudes toward authority, tradition, variation and the social role of the potter in the community. Battle Axe beakers represent a wholly new chaîne opératoire, probably introduced by a small group of relocated Beaker potters at the beginning of the period.

The different attitudes toward living bodies is highlighted further in the attitudes toward the dead bodies. In the mortuary ritual the Battle Axe culture was intent upon the creation and control of a perfect body which acted as a representative of the idealised notion of what it was to belong to the community. This focus upon completeness, continuation and control is echoed in the making of beakers using the ground-up remains of old vessels as temper. In contrast, the Pitted Ware culture people broke the bodies of the dead by defleshing, removal of body parts, cremation, sorting, dispersal and/or reburial of the bones on the settlements. The individuality of the living body was destroyed, leaving the durable but depersonalised bones to be returned to the joint collective of the ancestors. Just as the bodies were fragmented, so were the pots, sherds and bases being deposited in large quantities on the settlements and occasionally in graves. Some of the pots were also tempered with burnt and crushed bones. At the end of the Middle Neolithic the material and human remains show evidence of a growing effort to find a common ground in the two societies through sharing certain mortuary rituals and making beakers with a mix of both traditions, stylistically and technologically.

Keywords: Middle Neolithic, Late Neolithic, Pitted Ware culture, Battle Axe culture, Corded Ware culture, pottery, pottery technology, craft, chaîne opératoire, mortuary archaeology, mortuary house, burial, ritual, defleshing, cremation, secondary mortuary practice, osteology, ethnoarchaeology, culture, culture change, identity, ethnicity, practice, cognition, body, embodiment


In other news, I am very annoyed by a botched metaphor in a Maggi, Pierce & E.J. song. On their lovely 2005 triple album Silver is a song named “String of Pearls”.

I’m sorry my sweet love
Every day I spent with thee
Was like a string of pearls to me

What Maggi means here is clearly that each day with the one she loved was a pearl and that strung together they formed a string of pearls. Instead she tells us that every single one of the aforementioned days was an entire string of pearls. I just can’t get over it. Gah.

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9 thoughts on “Breaking and Making Bodies and Pots

  1. They can fail you though. It is rare of course, and usually (though not always) when somebody goes up for defence against the advice of their advisor but it does happen.

    There was a thesis in computer science in Lund some years ago which basically was 200 pages of a very nice thesis on virtual reality implementations – and over 800 pages of expertly written religious philosophy arguing against the morality and ethics of virtual reality, simulation and (if I understood the people who actually read it) the whole modern western program of science as a way to understand the world.

    The defence took two days, and he finally passed with 3-2 in votes. Many argued that if he’d only split the thesis into two he’d have easily gotten a double PhD (in CS and religion) with less total time spent defending them.


  2. Author here – yes, it is in fact written in English. I felt it would have a small enough readership as it is so I decided to add two or three by not limiting them to just Scandinavians.

    One thing – I noted Martin tried to clean up my English in the abstract by exchanging ‘representation’ for ‘representative’. Mine might not be the prettiest use of the latter term but I did chose the word representative quite deliberately. The point for me is that the dead body, being dressed, feasted, laid out etc. is not just a mental construct but an actual being, a person. Hence the special role mortuary rituals play in people’s minds and memories. Abstract concepts are literally made flesh and bones. Few things say ‘pay attention!’ more to the living than the dead. He/She is a representative, not just a representation.

    Though in the end its just a small distinction so I did not mind. Same, same


  3. Regarding metaphors, doesn’t everyone already know they are just as useless as casting pearls before a bird in the hand?


  4. Is there any possibility that this thesis will be made available online — so I can read the whole thing?

    And regarding the pearls metaphor, perhaps you can think of each hour of the day as pearl, with 24 of these as the day’s string. Then it’s not such a bad metaphor. Especially if you put, say, a black pearl in between the white pearls to separate each day’s set, so you can see at a glance how many days you have in the end….


  5. Yeah, Åsa, you’ve got to put it all on-line! Just ask your printer to make a PDF with screen-resolution pics. My thesis is available for free on


  6. Actually, our eminent University offers online publication for all who so wish on the DiVA portal. Naturally I will publish it there also in the next week or so. Best thing about PDF’s is that you can search directly for the information you want and bypass all that useless filler. 😉

    I’ll post the link here when its done


  7. According to medieval and renaissance imagery, pearls are symbols of tears. Thus, a string of pearls could well refer to expressions of sorrow, i.e. weeping. I haven’t listened to the song recently, so I cannot say how valid this interpretation would be.


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