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Death as Life: Guardian Article on the Science of Human Decomposition

6 May

The former neuroscientist and current science journalist Mo Costandi has a new article in The Guardian titled Life After Death: The Science of Human Decomposition.  It is well worth a read for those interested in how the body changes and starts to break down immediately following death, with new insights into the ecology of death itself.  It is well-known that, as the body goes through the initial death and decomposition stages towards skeletonization, it plays host to a wide range of insect life.  However it is only really in the past few years that the study of the so-called thanatomicrobiome has really blossomed, particularly with the rise of the ‘body farms’ across the world where human remains can be scientifically studied and sampled in-situ, in a variety of both buried or non-buried contexts which mimic where bodies are found (Can et al. 2014).  (Although sadly the United Kingdom still lacks a human body farm, there is an animal body farm at Glywndr University in Wales, created by forensic scientists at the university to study taphonomic change in non-human corpses).

There are obvious applications in understanding the mechanisms of the thanatomicrobiome and of the ecology present, particularly with the application of the methods in the forensic sciences in helping to pinpoint the time of death of an individual.  As Costandi demonstrates in his remarkable article the human body can be a veritable oasis of life in death, playing host to many species of insect life – this is particularly fascinating for forensic entomologists and anthropologists, but also to bioarchaeologists who work in conditions where the remains, and life stage, of insects can be identified and placed within a certain cycle of decomposition stage, if found within the context of a body.

It is also particularly interesting for those who study bioarchaeology as it highlights the differentiation found not just between bodies in the act of decomposition but also throughout the same body itself, and how this can change due to body location and environment.  This is highlighted by the observations of certain insects at unexpected places, perhaps taking actions that one would not expect – that is very important for the forensic sciences and bioarchaeological sciences as it can determine the theorised location of the body and if the body has moved after death took place but before retrieval (Lindgren et al. 2015).  The action of the gut microbiome also plays a key role in the decomposition of the body as it aids greatly in the decomposition of the body as whole during the biomolecular breakdown of the bodies numerous and varied cells.  The composition of it can also vary from person to person.  The understanding of the decomposition stages and of the taphonomic sequences in the forensic or archaeological record is thus vital to understanding the context of the body itself; whether this helps to identify if the individual underwent a funerary ritual and/or mortuary processing or to identifying whether the individual was buried in a clandestine or a non-normative manner.

Further Information

  • Mo Costandi’s article for the Guardian newspaper can be read here.

Bibliography

Can, I., Javan, G. T., Pozhitkov, A. E. & Noble, P. A. 2014. Distinctive Thanatomicrobiome Signatures Found in the Blood and Internal Organs of Humans. Journal of Microbiological Methods. 106: 1-7.

Lindgren, N. K., Sisson, M. S., Archambeault, A. D., Rahlwes, B. C., Willets, J. R. & Bucheli, S. R. 2015. Four Forensic Entomology Case Studies: Records and Behavioral Observations on Seldom Reported Cadaver Fauna with Notes on Relevant Previous Occurrences and Ecology. Journal of Medical Entomology. 52 (2): 143-150.

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The Death of a King

25 Jan

In life he was the absolute monarch of a wealthy and highly conservative country, who wielded influence and power across the Arabic region and whose country (along with Kuwait) currently holds reserves of roughly 20% of the world’s conventional oil supply.  Following his death his body is buried in an unmarked and unnamed grave within 24 hours of his passing, that is in keeping with his religion, with the minimum of both official and public mourning.

It is, of course, the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who passed away on Thursday 23rd of January 2015 after a short illness.  King Abdullah (full name Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud) was the third absolute monarch of Saudi Arabia following the formation of the modern country by his grandfather, King Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, in 1932.  To put it simply the House of Saud rules Saudi Arabia completely: for instance the members of the Saud royal family now number into the thousands, although there had been speculation and contention regarding the succession following the initial news of King Abdullah’s ill-health in December 2014.

King Abdullah was something of a slow reformer within Saudi Arabia itself, helping to extend the right to vote in municipal elections to women in 2011 and allowing mild criticism of the government in the press in the later years of his rule.  A firm believer in pan-Arab unity, King Abdullah also helped negotiate and settle numerous contentions in the Middle East during his reign, including in both Palestinian disputes and the American-led actions in Iraq in 2003, amongst other conflicts.  As a predominantly Sunni sect of Islam the Saudi Royal family and the country have also been the focus of some Islamic extremist groups and sectarian violence, particularly during the late 1970’s and early 2000’s.  Tensions have, at times, also been tested with the largely Shia-led country of Iran and their combined vying influence within the Middle East (in, for example, the ongoing civil war in Syria which has divided the two power bases, where each country support different factions that are currently fighting in Syria and across the border in Iraq).  It is pertinent to mention here that Saudi Arabia adheres to the codified system of Islamic law, and that the influence of strict conservative form of Islam known as Wahabbism is still strongly felt in the kingdom to the present day, particularly in the social ethos of government responsibility for the country’s moral code.

Following the announcement of his death, his half-brother Salman was pronounced King of Saudi Arabia.  The country currently faces a turbulent period as oil prices have dropped significantly, Islamist extremists threaten both the North of the country (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) and the South (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Pennisula in Yemen), and international condemnation of the harsh sentencing of the Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi continues to mount (amongst other noted human rights abuses).  In an impressive study of current Saudi society the anthropologist Menoret (2014) has detailed the feeling of tufshan among the young and working class in Riyadh, where torpor sets in due to the rigidity of social and political life in the country.  Saudi Arabia is also the country that is inherently the focus of the world’s 1.6 billion strong Muslim population, who worship the Islamic faith, as the twin holy cities of Medina and Mecca are located within Arabia’s borders and the country itself acted as the religion’s cradle in the 7th century AD following Mohammad’s revelations.  It was Mohammad who helped unify Arabia into a single religious polity under the banner of Islam, who is himself considered a major prophet in Islam, alongside the recognition of established prophets (by the time of Islam’s foundation) such as Adam, Moses, Jonah and Jesus, etc.

However, this post isn’t about the socioeconomic status of Saudi Arabia, nor of its strategic importance and international standing (interesting though that may be in itself).  Rather, the news of the King’s passing and subsequent funeral interested me on an archaeological level.  Far too often we associate archaeology from an early age, particularly so the remains of individuals in the archaeology record, with the wealth, power and domination of society’s elite – the Ancient Egyptian pharaohs in their pyramids, perhaps Alexander the Great leading his forces across continents, or the various King’s and Queen’s from European history.  Rarely do the remains of individuals buried in simple graves make the headlines (unless of course they are discovered in unexpected places) or imprint on young minds in association with archaeology itself.  Human osteology and bioarchaeology, as specialist sub-disciplines of archaeology and anthropology, help give a voice to each and every individual excavated and analysed (regardless of their final deposition or storage).

In archaeology, though, context is king.  If a burial is an ‘obvious’ (relatively speaking) wealthy individual for their site, our perceptions can be changed.  The analysis of Richard the III’s skeleton included scientific analysis that would rarely be carried out for normally buried individuals from the same Tudor period.  Context, of course, hinted at the possibility of royalty lying undisturbed in that Leicester car park, palaeopathological and ancient DNA analysis helped confirm suspicions of the finding of the lost king.  In prehistoric archaeology, where no written documents were made or existed and where history was likely only passed down orally or coded in artefacts we cannot read, the archaeological remains of individuals and their burial context are the keys to help the archaeologist unlock their lives.

Therefore, when I read further into the death and burial of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, I was surprised at first to see the funerary procession and burial location as it was presented in various new articles.  Below is a photograph following the burial of the King’s body within 24 hours, as often stipulated within the Islamic faith as it is in the Jewish faith, highlighting a simple grave with a topping of small stones.  There are no obvious markers of the role that this individual played in life and no markers detailing the name or life of the occupant of the grave will be left in-situ.  This is in keeping with the Wahhabi Sunni view of curtailing idolatry and of recognizing Allah as the creator and giver of life, regardless of the social role the individual played in their lifetime.

kingabdullah

The grave site of the former King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia with male mourners paying respects (females are banned from cemeteries in Saudi Arabia). His body was buried in a simple shroud within a day of his death, in an unnamed and unmarked grave in the El-Ud public cemetery. This religious observation is a strict interpretation of the Sunni Islamic faith which states that to name a grave would be tantamount to idolatry, which is forbidden in the Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam. Note the other stone covered grave plots in the background. Image credit: Faisal Al Nasser/REUTERS & the Daily Telegraph.

It is interesting to note that, in death, Abdullah has resumed the role of an individual once more reflected only by his biological identity that will not be defined by his status during life, and that King Salman has carried onward the House of Saud in the country of Saudi Arabia.

Further Information

  • I have previously written about the Bedu of Arabia after reading Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands book which detailed his time spent living and travelling with the Bedu in the mid and late 1940’s, the period just before the oil boom fundamentally helped change Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.  Read the post here.
  • The Economist and the BBC have particularly detailed articles on Saudi Arabia, and the differences between the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam.  It is also worth browsing Wikipedia’s page on the history of Islam itself (a monotheistic religion founded in the 7th century in Saudi Arabia by the Prophet Mohammed).
  • Of archaeological and cultural heritage interest is the continued destruction of buildings, tombs and cemeteries associated with the early personalities and prophets of Islam, mainly centered around Mecca and Medina in the country, in an effort to accommodate ever-increasing numbers of pilgrims who attend the annual Hajj pilgrimage; though it can also be seen as iconoclasm as an interpretation of conservative values.  Read more here.

Bibliography

Menoret, P. 2014. Joyriding in Riyadh: Oil, Urbanism, and Road Revolt. Cambridge Middle East Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thesiger, W. 2007. Arabian Sands. London: Penguin Classics.