These boots are made for burnin’: Inferring the position of the corpse and the presence of leather footwears during cremation through isotope (δ13C, δ18O) and infrared (FTIR) analyses of experimentally burnt skeletal remains

Kevin Salesse, Elisavet Stamataki, Ioannis Kontopoulos, Georges Verly, Rica Annaert, Mathieu Boudin, Giacomo Capuzzo, Philippe Claeys, Sarah Dalle, Marta Hlad, Guy de Mulder, Charlotte Sabaux, Amanda Sengeløv, Barbara Veselka, Eugène Warmenbol, Martine Vercauteren, Christophe Snoeck

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Abstract

Cremation is a complex mortuary practice, involving a number of activities of the living towards the dead before, during, and after the destruction of the bodily soft tissues by fire. The limiting information concerning these behavioral patterns obtained from the pyre remains and/or cremation deposits prevents the reconstruction of the handling of the corpse during the burning process. This pioneering study tries to determine the initial positioning of the corpse in the pyre and assess whether the deceased was wearing closed leather shoes during cremation through isotopic (δ13C, δ18O) and infrared (ATR-FTIR) analyses of experimentally burnt pig remains, used as a proxy for humans. The results obtained show that both the position of feet on or within the pyre and the presence of footwears may moderately-to-highly influence the oxygen isotope ratios of bone apatite carbonates and the cyanamide content of calcined bone in certain situations. By forming a protective layer, shoes appear to temporarily delay the burning of the underlying pig tissues and to increase the heat-shielding effect of the soft tissues protecting the bone mineral fraction. In such case, bioapatite bone carbonates exchange oxygen with a relatively more 18O-depleted atmosphere (due to the influence of lignin-derived oxygen rather than cellulose-derived oxygen), resulting in more pronounced decrease in the δ18Ocarb values during burning of the shoed feet vs. unshoed feet. The shift observed here was as high as 2.5‰. A concomitant isotopic effect of the initial location of the feet in the pyres was also observed, resulting in a top-to-bottom decrease difference in the δ18Ocarb values of shoed feet of about 1.4‰ between each deposition level tested. Finally, the presence of cyanamide (CN/P ≥ 0.02) seems to be indicative of closed footwear since the latter creates favorable conditions for its incorporation into bone apatite.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0257199
Pages (from-to)1-21
Number of pages21
JournalPLOS ONE
Volume16
Issue number10
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 13 Oct 2021

Keywords

  • Cremation
  • FTIR
  • Stable isotope

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