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Determining the Social Status Using Archeological Evidence


The applications of archeological studies are an essential aspect that dictates the collection of evidence from the human remains and the grave goods associated with the remains. For instance, the nature of the archeological evidence dictates the elite status and prehistoric social systems that the archeologists use to link with the remains. Archeological studies reveal a similarity between how persons are differentiated and body treated during mortuary ceremonies and the status structure in the social-cultural system (Tainter, 1978, pg. 107). Similarly, Saxe, 1971, pg. 52 indicates that the goods found in the graveside symbolize the status differences in the society, including aspects such as age, sex, and personal achievement in the community. The paper seeks to evaluate how archeological evidence illustrates elite status in the social culture by comparing two case studies. A detailed analysis is done on methods used, the nature of evidence, and how factors such as excavation, sampling, stratigraphy, chronology, and site formation affected the methods and evidence. Lastly, an opinion on ambiguities, persuasiveness and suggested changes in the case studies is outlined.

Case Studies

The first case study that links human remains and grave goods to the existence of elite status is outlined in the article Saxe, A.A., 1971. Social dimensions of mortuary practices in a Mesolithic population from Wadi Haifa, Sudan. Memoirs of the Society for American Archaeology, 25, pp.39-57. The case study is the Mesolithic occupation of Wadi Halfa of Sudan, which archeological evidence suggests the existence of an egalitarian status system. The differences in body disposal and remain indicate differences in age, sex, and societal achievements. This study analyzed how the body was treated, pathology and even the mode of interment to determine the what status position one played and held. Secondly, the article Mortuary practices and the study of prehistoric social systems. In Advances in archaeological method and theory, by Joseph A. Tainter illustrates the relationship between burial practices and social identities. In this case, Tainter argues that there are a variety of social information about people that can be derived from mortuary remains to inform the social phenomena of the persons.

Methods Used

One of the methods of collecting archeological evidence is ethnography. the archeologists directly conduct face-to-face interviews with the people around the archeological sites before beginning detailed data collection through methods such as excavation. Saxe, 1971, pg. 39 indicates that archeologists are responsible for performing an ethnographic study of the living societies. The mortuary practices data in the Saxe case study of Wadi Halfa in Sudan were first obtained from asking questions about the living population around the area. However, challenges such as incomplete ethnographic reporting could hamper the research. For instance, Saxe could not find demonstrable data to link mortuary practice to social complexities because of a lack of complete ethnographic reporting (Tainter, 1978, pg., 130).

On the other hand, Tainter used ethnographic literature to link rank grades in society with energy expenditure. Ethnographic data suggest that energy expenditure during the mortuary ritual is linked with rank grading (Tainter, 1971, pg. 127). However, a challenge could exist in determining energy expenditure and the variation of data obtained ethnographically. For example, the burial of Huron displayed both articulated and disarticulated individuals where it could be mistaken as variation in energy expenditure to suggest differences in rank grading.

Another method used to demonstrate elite status using archeological remains is an analysis of data. For instance, Saxe, 1978, pg. 44 utilizes the data analysis method to establish the link between the age groups and sex with the locations of the burial sites. The data analysis suggests that individuals of different age groups and sex were not treated the same concerning burial location (Saxe, 1978, pg. 44), as indicated in figures 1 and 2 below.

Figure 1. Percentage of each sex in each age group (Saxe, 1978, pg.44)

Figure 2: Percentage of each sex accounted in age groups (Saxe, 1978, pg. 44)

On the other hand, formal analysis (branching diagrams) is used to show mortuary attributes linking prehistoric mortuary data and the social status in the society (Tainter, 1971, pg. 100), as shown in figure 3 and 4 below.

Figure 3: mortuary attributes linking prehistoric mortuary data and the social status in the society (Tainter, 1971, pg. 111)

Figure 4: mortuary attributes linking prehistoric mortuary data and the social status in the society (Tainter, 1971, pg. 112)


Evidence gathering is significant because archeological works seek to uncover events that occurred many years ago. Archeological evidence suggests the existence of social elite status from studying archeological remains. The evidences often analyzed to derive information on the social status of people include nature of their tombs, the locations of the burial sites, the tomb characteristics, the goods found in the burial sites, the positioning of the human remains, and even characteristics and evidences of the body’s treatment before during and after death.

Grave Goods

The types of goods recovered from the graves around the location of the human remains could significantly indicate the elite status in society. According to Tainter, 1978, pg. 120, the differentiation of quality and quantity of status markers materials and mortuary materials suggested that the egalitarian society had status distinctions. Also, the grave goods could offer the professional status and role of the individual in society. The grave goods such as sword, spear, armor, axe, two shields, and arrow knife recovered from Warrior grave Bj 581 suggested the individual was a male professional warrior (Hedenstierna‐Jonson et al. 2017, pgs., 854 and 855) as shown in figure 5 below.

Figure 5: Illustration by Evald Hansen on the original plan of grave Bj 581 by excavator Hjalmar Stople (Hedenstierna‐Jonson, et. al. 2017, pgs., 854 and 855)

The grave goods further suggest that the individual was a high-ranking officer in society, based on the complexity of the goods. Despite the general indication that expensive grave goods indicate a wealthy individual, this could not be true in some societies such as Sicily because burial style and social class are not associated (Kyle et al. 2018, pg. 165). Nonetheless, the quality of grave goods and the nature of the grave determines the wealth and authority status of an individual.

Nature of Tombs/Graves, Locations, and Characteristics

The locations and proximity of graves and tombs to important landmarks are significant indications of the social status of the individuals in the graves. The site of the Viking Warrior remains, for example, is indicative that he was rich and of high authority. According to Price et al. 2019, pg. 188, the remains were located outside the gate of the Birka Hillfort next to the burials that had many weapons, which was the burial site for the rich in society. Therefore, the grave’s proximity to the Birka hills suggests he belonged to the elite class.

Positioning of Human Remains and the Body Treatment

The differences in the positioning of the human remains in some cultures could indicate the status in society, especially about gender. Male legs are tightly bound after death; hence femur and tibia are tightly pressed, while female legs are uniformly tight, suggesting that males were more important in society than females, considering how their bodies were treated (Saxe, 1971, pg. 48). Thus, the treatment of bodies was determined by social status. For example, with the Salinan Indians, cremation of bodies was done to the most distinguished people in society while ordinary individuals were buried, as illustrated by the Papuan group, who buried ordinary people in a sewn mat (Tainter, 1978, pg. 126).

Another instance where the positioning of human remains suggests the individual’s status is positioning the body near buildings and the placements of offerings. The burial that contained 17 skulls and an atlas that had no offerings in the site possibly suggests low-class individuals. In contrast, the burial positions and adornments of individuals found in Motagua Valley suggest they belonged to high-class status in society (Cucina and Tiesler, 2007, pg. 284 and 285). Therefore, positioning of human remains is a significant indicator of social status. See figure 6 below.

Figure 6: The designation of the individual sacrificial victims (Cucina and Tiesler, 2007, pg. 284)

Factors That Affected Methods and Evidence

Excavation or Survey Strategies

Excavation methods affect the archeological evidence since it involves the destruction of the archeological sites while searching artifacts. For instance, excavations could cause loss of sediments and rock layers that could be useful when studying the remains. Damaged deposits in the cave characterized the excavations in the Soprintendenza archeology by earlier excavations and the infilling of sediments by unofficial and official excavations (Sardella et al. 2018, pg. 261). Also, the interpretation and recording of excavation data could be challenging and may affect the nature of the evidence collected. However, the excavation plans in Alken Enge illustrate how transitioning from the traditional photogrammetric recording and paper drawing to the modern 3D photographing of excavated data has solved most of the excavation data interpretation challenges (Jansen, 2018, pg. 534). Therefore, the 3D photographing technology could solve the challenge.

Figure 7: The transitioning from drawing to 3D photographing (Jansen, 2018, pg. 534)


Sampling is another factor that affects the evidence and collection methods of archeological data. For instance, the sampling errors and imbalance could significantly affect the archeological evidence collected. However, sampling errors could be reduced by appropriately defining the strata to obtain the suitable sampling fraction by performing stratification (Orton, 2000, pg. 30). Also, the nature of data determines the methods of sampling to be used. For example, in archeology, cluster sampling is appropriate when the cluster is a geographical block of land; thus, creating smaller units of clusters is necessary. The energy expenditure in the mortuary experiment used an ethnographic sample size of 130 deceased to show a link between the energy expenditure and the rank of the dead (Tainter, 1978, pg. 126). For instance, Stevenson, 2009, indicates that the energy used when the grave was constructed indicates the social status of the individual occupying the grave. Therefore, the burials and mortuary constructions reflected the power and authority that the individuals held in life. Additionally, the regularity of the burial sites indicates the occupant’s social status. For example, burial sites lacking regularity suggest that the burial was rushed probably for insufficient labor and the low status of the individual (Harrington et al. 2020, pg. 399).


While stratigraphy involves the successive arrangements of strata, the different stratigraphic features affect the archeological data and determine the appropriate data collection methods. The factors that determine the stratigraphic features such as soil formations, erosions, and sedimentation affect the archeological materials. For example, erosion in the coastal islands of Santa Rosa has caused the loss of archeological sites (Jazwa and Johnson, 2019, pg. 303). However, in some instances, the strata formed from wind erosion have advanced preservation of archeological materials around the shoreline. Thus, the sedimentation process could impact the preservation of archeological materials that could indicate the existence of social status in society. The aeolian sedimentation in the Negev region, for example, played a significant role in the formations of terraces in the archeological sites (Lucke et al., 2019, Pg. 12). The dust traps formed in the terraces thus preserves the archeological materials.


Chronology is vital in establishing a prehistoric sequence of dating human remains and other archeological artifacts. Therefore, the nature of the chronological methods used to date the archeological materials will determine the authenticity of the results. For instance, absolute chronologies that utilize scientific techniques such as carbon 14 dating is considered a more accurate chronological technique than relative archeology, which uses traditional means of dating. For instance, a skull found during the Roman era in South Coastal Anatolia was confirmed by carbon 14 dating as a human remains dated 600 AD +/- 5O years, which agrees with the Roman era ceramic data (CWC PRIMER Chapter Two, n.d). The Roman ceramic data is as indicated in figure 8 below.

Figure 8: Human Skull Fragment from Gurcam Kale in Turkey (CWC PRIMER Chapter Two, n.d)

The dateable materials played a role in applying carbon dating testing on the artifact.

Site formation

Site formation affects the structure of archeological sites; for example, natural processes may destroy archeological sites and artifacts. For instance, Site formation processes such as salt weathering and landscape-scale processes affect the preservation of archeological remains by degrading porous artifacts and ceramic stones (Worman, Kurota, and Hogan, P., 2019, pg. 59). However, other materials such as hunting tools may be resistant to weathering; hence are preserved

Opinions on the Evidence in the Case Studies


Concerning the ambiguities in the explanations given in the two case studies, I think none has specific ambiguities in their presentations. However, Tainter’s article is somewhat lacking in using a variety of data collection methods and instead depends on mainly the ethnographic analysis of other literature. Additionally, Tainter’s case study lacks an appropriate structuring of the ethnographic data; hence not possible to indicate the social status and complexity using only the ethnographic literature (Tainter, 1978, pg. 107). On the contrary, Saxe’s article has used many data collection methods hence conclusively illustrating the link between the archeological evidence and elite status.

The Persuasiveness of the Interpretations

Considering that Saxe’s article utilized many illustrations to present the data, I think it is the a more persuasive article compared with Tainter’s. However, Saxe’s paper used very few literature reviews of the previous studies, which could have improved the basic and background understanding of the subject. On the other hand, the understanding of the subject in Tainter’s work is well covered by the much ethnographic literature in the article; the reader finds it well interpreted.

Changes to Improve the Studies

Some of the changes I would suggest for improving the case studies include more collection methods and illustrations such as figures and tables for both the articles. Secondly, sufficient literature reviews and providing basic understanding and background knowledge is necessary for Saxe’s article.


Determining the general social status or more specifically the elite status of individuals using archeological research is both a complex and challenging task. However, as evidenced by the extensive literature reviewed in this paper, using indicative features of the human remains and detailed study of the archeological site makes it easier for archeologists to establish the social status of human remains. Some archeological evidence and features that guide archeologists include the nature and type of grave goods, nature of the grave, positioning of the body, mortuary locations, and the overall body treatment. Some of the factors that affect the evidence and methods of archeology include the excavations, sampling methods, stratigraphy, chronology, and site formation. For example, the excavations could destroy essential features of the archeological site’s human remains and sediments, affecting the evidence. Sampling and chronology errors were also identified as sever risks that challenge the accuracy of archeological findings and publications but also proven to be manageable and preventable. While the two case studies illustrating elite status are persuasive, some instances indicate ambiguity. For example, Tainter’s article does not have an appropriate ethnography structure.


Cucina, A. and Tiesler, V., 2007. Nutrition, lifestyle, and social status of skeletal remains from nonfunerary and “problematical” contexts. In New perspectives on human sacrifice and ritual body treatments in ancient Maya society (pp. 251-262). Springer, New York, NY.

CWC PRIMER Chapter Two, n.d. Means of Chronological Dating. Archaeological Means of Dating. Retrieved from https://web.ics.purdue.edu/~rauhn/CWC_text/CWC_2.htm

Harrington, S., Brookes, S., Semple, S., and Millard, A., 2020. Theatres of Closure: Process and Performance in Inhumation Burial Rites in Early Medieval Britain. Cambridge Archaeological Journal30(3), pp.389-412.

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