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Mari Tõrv defended her PhD thesis in Tartu

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On the 23rd of May Mari Tõrv successfully defended her PhD thesis “Persistent Practices: A Multi-Disciplinary Study of Hunter-Gatherer Mortuary Remains from c. 6500-2600 cal. BC, Estonia” at Senate Hall at the University of Tartu. This research was undertaken in cooperation between the University of Tartu (UT), the Centre for Baltic and Scandinavian Archaeology (ZBSA), and Christian-Albrechts University at Kiel (CAU).
The thesis was supervised by Prof. Avian Kriiska (UT), prof. Berit V. Eriksen (ZBSA and CAU) and Dr. Liv Nilsson Stutz (Emory College of Art and Science, United States). The opponent during the defence was Dr. Rick Shulting from the University of Oxford, United Kingdom.
The thesis focused on the question of how was death handled within and among hunter-gatherer communities in present-day Estonia. The study departed from the human remains - both intact skeletons and loose human bones in occupation layers - bringing the human body to the foreground to detect mortuary practices through the lens of archaeothanatology, and to recreate the primary identities of these people by the application of osteological methods and stable isotope studies. The time depth was provided by the radio carbon dates of bone collagen.
It was shown that all the human remains belonged to the inland fishers and coastal hunters of marine mammals and fishes, indicating the importance of hunting and gathering subsistence until the mid of 3rd millennium BC. Burials contained both females and males from all age groups including small children.
The long temporal perspective allowed observing the continuum and change of practices. The deceased had been placed in the ground of contemporary settlement sites, cemeteries and solitary graves close to the hunter-gatherer pathways. As indicated by the archaeothanatological analyses, a range of practices were considered as norm. Only a fraction of the population received archaeologically observable handling; the vast majority of these constitute primary inhumations in a variety of body positions either with or without grave goods. Clear evidence of practices in multiple episodes was demonstrated in the form of defleshing and reopening of graves.
Instead of emphasising the differences in grave goods, or in places for the dead, and variability in body positions, this thesis stressed that a unchanging pattern of underlying norms of mortuary practices persisted from the first evidence of the mortuary remains in c. 6500 BC until the mid 3rd millennium BC, in Estonia. The core of deathways was formed by immediate handling of the dead, primacy of the corpse, absence of clear separation between life and death, and open character of the mortuary practices that allowed the maintenance and gradual change of mortuary rituals within and among hunter-gatherer practices.