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Social Inference and Mortuary Practices: An Experiment in Numerical Classification Author(s): Joseph A. Tainter Source: World Archaeology, Vol.

7, No. 1, Burial (Jun., 1975), pp. 1-15 Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. Stable URL: . Accessed: 24/05/2011 02:31
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World Archaeology Volume 7

No. z


Socialinferenceand mortuarypractices: an classification in experiment numerical

Joseph A. Tainter

Mortuary practices and and social inference The material residues created as the by products of human behaviour have been recognized for many years to contain the potential for yielding information concerning many of the social characteristics of prehistoric communities. Of the various classes of material preserved in an archaeological context, perhaps no single category of data has greater utility for the archaeologist attempting to draw social inferences than the physical remains of mortuary procedures. The empirical justification for investigating the social correlates of prehistoric mortuary patterns lies in recent cross-cultural studies of ethnographically recorded mortuary systems which have demonstrated that both the structure and the organization of social systems, as well as the status positions occupied by the members of such systems, are symbolized at death through variations in the form of mortuary ritual (Saxe 1970; Binford I97I). Since much of mortuary ritual is preserved in the archaeological record, the analysis of burial patterns can potentially yield detailed information concerning the social organization of prehistoric groups. Yet despite the potential for social inference which is inherent in mortuary data (as well as other facets of the archaeological record), and despite the number of studies which have successfully concentrated on social modelling of prehistoric communities, no general goals for social inference have ever been set forth in the archaeological literature. Archaeological residues provide the opportunity to determine several of the social characteristics of prehistoric groups. But there are two primary characteristics of social systems which are of central importance in understanding the dynamic processes involved in social variation and change, and which should constitute a fundamental goal of archaeological identification. These central characteristics are the structure and the organization of social systems. The meanings of these two terms, as they are used here, are most closely approximated by definitions derived from the fields of systems theory and cybernetics. The structure of a system is meant to indicate the number, nature and arrangement of its articulated components and subsystems (cf. Miller I965: 209), while organization is intended to encompass the constraints imposed upon the ranges of behaviour which may possibly be pursued by the elements of a social system (cf. Rothstein I958: 34-6). The determination of prehistoric social structure is in fact an essential first step in the study of mortuary patterning, for the analysis of organization becomes meaningful only when considered in relation to explicitly defined structures. Given the analytical priority of isolating structural patterns in mortuary data, an

Joseph A. Tainter

evaluation of the utility of different methods for such an isolation is required. This paper is intended to provide such an evaluation. One element of social patterning which has been of perennial concern in archaeological studies is the nature, or absence, or hierarchical rank grading. So universal is the symbolization of rank differentiation at burial that it is possible to develop general principles for interpreting status indicators which should be applicable in most, if not all, primary and undisturbed mortuary contexts. These interpretive principles derive initially from Arthur Saxe's observation (1970: 6) that the occasion of death and burial involves the participation in interment ritual of potentially the entire range of individuals who at any time may have entered into social relationships with the deceased. It follows from this observation, as Lewis Binford has suggested (197I: 17, 21), that there are generally two components of social significance which participate in structuring the form of mortuary ritual. The first is what in anthropological role theory (Goodenough 1965) has been called the socialpersona of the deceased, a term which refers to the range of social identities characterizing a person for any given interaction. The second is the size and internal composition of the social unit recognizing status responsiblities to the individual. Given the generally pyramidal structure of rank networks, it follows that increased relative ranking of status positions in a social system will positively co-vary with increased numbers of persons recognizing duty-status relationships with individuals holding such status positions. Lewis Binford (I97I: 21) proposes that such a larger array of status relationships, which is characteristic of persons of high rank, will entitle the deceased to a larger amount of corporate involvement in the act of interment, and to a larger degree of disruption of normal community activities for the mortuary ritual. Expanding upon this proposal, we may observe that both the amount of corporate involvement, and the degree of activity disruption, will positively correspond to the amount of energy expended in the mortuary act. Directionally, higher social rank of a deceased individual will correspond to greater amounts of corporate involvement and activity disruption, and hence should result in the expenditure of greater amounts of energy in the interment ritual. Energy expenditure should in turn be reflected in such features of burial as size and elaborateness of the interment facility, method of handling and disposal of the corpse, and the nature of grave associations. It is anticipated then that the amount of energy expended in mortuary ceremonialism is the key archaeological feature reflecting variations in prehistoric rank structure.

Social structure and mortuary attribute classification In archaeological research, the process of identifying a system's structure must be keyed to the ethnographic observations that membership in the components of a social system is symbolized at death through variations in the form of mortuary ritual (Binford I971: i8-20). This ethnographic fact indicates that when a set of mortuary data has been segregated into classes of burials accorded similar forms of interment, the resultant burial clusters can be expected to reflect at least a portion of the structural components of the prehistoric social system. It becomes immediately apparent that the isolation of the structure of a past social system can be initiated through the derivation of a suitable

Social inferenceand mortuarypractices: an experimentin numerical classification

classification of mortuary attributes which can serve to identify sets of burials accorded similar forms of interment. The classification of burial data therefore constitutes the most basic and essential aspect of the study of mortuary practices, and considerable care is warranted in the selection of a method of classification. One classification procedure which has been suggested for use with burial data is formal analysis (Saxe 1970; Brown 1971), a technique which progressively subdivides a population on the basis of the presence or absence of all variables utilized, but without regard to the possibility that attributes may have varying degrees of importance in the domain in question (for a discussion of formal analysis, see Kay 1966). Formal analysis is generally an unworkable technique when large and diverse data sets are involved, and is additionally very susceptible to focusing the classification procedure on variables which reflect idiosyncratic variations peculiar to individual burials. This last factor is particularly noticeable in several studies which have applied formal analysis to mortuary data, with resulting classifications which often contain clusters with only one burial each (Decker I969; Finnerty et al. I970; King 1970; cf. Rodeffer 1973). It can be contended that when formal classification procedures isolate individual burials, it is difficult to gain information concerning the structural components of a social system. Such components will most likely be identified by statistical classification procedures which isolate sets of burials accorded similar forms of interment, rather than by formal procedures which tend to key out individual burials. A number of such statistical classification procedures are available for use with mortuary data, but the very range of these methods leads to the central problem considered in this paper: which classification algorithm is most useful for isolating sets of burials which reflect the structure of a social system? Until now there have been no really explicit criteria against which to evaluate possible answers to this question. Here the orientation developed in the preceding pages becomes important. As a consequence of this orientation, it is possible to specify two criteria which must be met before any classification method may be regarded as useful for mortuary data. First, the procedure must be relatively sensitive to the size of the derived burial clusters. It must not show a tendency to form clusters composed of small numbers of burials possessing idiosyncratic attributes which are not of importance for defining major groups of burials. Any technique which fails in this regard is no more useful than formal analysis. Second, and more important, the classification method must be capable of partitioning the data set into aggregates of burials which can be interpreted as socially distinctive. That is, the data base must be segregated into clusters of burials accorded equivalent forms of interment. At the minimum, such aggregates of burials must be defined by attributes reflecting equivalent amounts of energy expenditure in mortuary ceremonialism. In essence, classification algorithms applied to mortuary data should be evaluated by the patterns displayed in the size and composition of derived burial clusters. A range of procedures, falling into two categories, has been tested for utility on this basis. The first category comprises a set of polythetic methods, average and complete linkage cluster analyses as well as factor analysis, while the second encompasses monothetic-divisive procedures utilizing the sum of chi-squares and the information statistic. All of the classifications were run on the CDC 6400 computer at Northwestern University, utilizing David Wishart's CLUSTAN IA for the polythetic-agglomerative and most of

Joseph A. Tainter

the monothetic-divisive algorithms; Robert Whallon's (197I) programme TYPE for one monothetic-divisive classification using the sum of chi-squares; and the Statistical Packagefor the Social Sciences for the factor analysis. Before proceeding to the analysis of the classification results, the data set employed in this experiment must be briefly described.

Middle Woodland mortuary patterning in the lower Illinois River valley The mortuary data classified in this study derive from a set of 512 Middle Woodland
(c. 150 B.C. to A.D. 400) burials from the Klunk and Gibson mound groups in the lower

Illinois River valley. From this population, a subset of 439 burials was found to be suitable for statistical evaluation. Viewed within the framework presented here, Middle Woodland mounds in the lower Illinois River valley can be seen to contain a number of distinctive structural elements, many of which indicate variations in the energy expended on construction. In these mounds there are one or more centrally-located, excavated tombs, surrounded by ramps of loaded earth. Termed 'central features' (Buikstra I972: 65), these tombs will often display such variations in energy expenditure as the presence or absence of a log roof, as well as log, slab or earth walls (cf. Perino i968). There are indications that the interment of persons in the central feature was not considered a terminal act. It appears rather that from time to time these tombs were reopened, the contents exhumed and deposited as disarticulated bundles of bones, above or adjacent to the central feature, and subsequent individuals interred in the same grave (Perino i968: 38; Buikstra I972: 33-4). Generally organized around the first central feature constructed at a location, the area in and under the primary mound comprised the place of interment for the majority of Middle Woodland individuals. Burials in this location were either placed on accretional surfaces of the mound, and earth piled over them, or were placed in excavated sub-floor graves. These latter features may often display log or limestone slab coverings over the burial, or inclusive slabs within the grave. Finally, there is at most mounds a set of individuals who were buried in a location somewhat peripheral to the primary mound.

Evaluation of classification


A set of eighteen binary attributes has been recorded from the Middle Woodland data for use in this experiment (table I). The attribute list was structured so that all distinctions were truly binary, and no redundant or auto-associated attributes were present. For the polythetic classification procedures, a matching coefficient for binary data, which excludes negative matches from consideration, was chosen as a measure of similarity. The reason for choosing a measure which excludes negative matches from the calculation was based on the necessity of avoiding the formation of clusters composed of burials which are similar only because they all lack certain attributes. The study of mortuary data must begin with burial clusters which are composed of individuals displaying strong positive attribute associations. The measure chosen for use is known as

in Social inference mortuary and classification practices:an experiment numerical

Kulczynski's Matching Coefficient 2 (SK2) (Sokal and Sneath I963: I30). This coefficient served as the basis for both the factor and polythetic cluster analyses. In the clustering procedures tested (that is, in all methods excluding the factor

in Variables employed statisticalanalysis

Coding I/O Uncremated/cremated Articulated/disarticulated Extended/not extended Earth walls/log walls Ramps/no ramps Surface/sub-surface Log covered/notlog covered Slab covered/notslab covered Slabs in grave/no slabs o1 Interredin centrallocation/ interredin primarymound

I/O Supine/not supine Single/multiple Ochre/no ochre Hematite/no hematite Miscellaneousanimal bone/none i6 Imported sociotechnic* items I7 Locally produced sociotechnic*items I8 Technomic* items xx I2 I3 I4 x5

I 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Terminology sensu Binford I962.

analysis), the cut-off point in the classification process was found by graphing the magnitude of the 'jump' in the value of the similarity or association coefficient utilized, at each node in the fusion or division process. The point of significant deceleration in the curve produced on this graph can be taken as a stopping point, since all subsequent clusters are simply minor variations of the patterns established by higher-order groups. The clusters formed from nodes at, and immediately higher than, this point of deflection are utilized as the terminal clusters in the analysis. Polythetic-agglomerativecluster analyses Average-linkage analysis is a commonly used clustering procedure which fuses subordinate clusters based upon the average similarity between all cases previously existing in a cluster and the potential new member. In the complete linkage procedure a juncture between two clusters is effected only when the joining case is sufficiently similar to all members of the existing set. Complete linkage-analysis was chosen for this experiment because the criterion for stipulating similarity to all members of an existing cluster should be explored as a possible device for ensuring the derivation of homogeneous burial clusters. The average and complete linkage-cluster analyses derived a total of eight and ten clusters respectively, at the point where the clustering procedure was terminated. The results, as recorded in tables 2 and 3, and figs i and 2, show these clustering algorithms to be almost totally inadequate for the purpose of isolating sets of burials accorded equivalent forms of interment. Both of these procedures failed consistently to segregate burials on the basis of such major variations in energy expenditure as custodial care leading to ultimate skeletal disarticulation (average-linkage clusters I, 4 and 7; completelinkage clusters I and 7), the placement of logs or limestone slabs about the grave

Joseph A. Tainter


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Figure2 Complete-linkagecluster-analysis of Klunk and Gibson data using SK2

Joseph A. Tainter

(average-linkage clusters I, 2, 3, and 4; complete-linkage clusters I, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 7), as well as the construction of log walls around central features (average-linkage clusters I, 2 and 3; complete-linkage clusters i, 3 and 5). Following the argument relating energy expenditure in mortuary ritual to the rank of the deceased, it would seem that the clusters derived from these classifications often contain individuals representing two or perhaps three discrete grades of hierarchical ranking. Such a failure to partition the data set into socially distinctive burial groups must indicate that these polythetic-agglomerative clustering procedures are not appropriate for mortuary data. Factor analysis The factor-analysis technique employed here was the principal factoring type with iterations and varimax orthogonal rotation. A total of nine factors was derived for which at least moderately high loadings were evident, and these accounted for a cumulative total of 99-1% of the variance in the data set. The ninth factor displayed an eigenvalue of o.I9. The rotated factor matrix is displayed in table 4. In contrast to the polythetic clusteranalyses, this classification has isolated several constellations of attributes which discriminate between classes of burials accorded variable amounts of energy expenditure. The factor analysis has successfully isolated log-walled central features (Factor I),

Varimax rotated-factor matrix


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disarticulated burials processed through these features (Factor 2), log- and slab-covered graves located peripheral to the central tomb (Factor 3), and other classes of burials. Since this classification appears to have generally succeeded in segregating distinctive levels of energy expenditure, the factor-analysis results seem highly suitable for the purpose of social inference. The outcome of the factor analysis has a far greater likelihood

Social inferencesand mortuarypractices: an experimentin numerical classification

of reflecting the structure of an extinct social system than do the results of the polythetic cluster-analyses. Monothetic-divisive procedures A set of classification methods is available designed progressively to subdivide a population into groups defined by the presence or absence of attributes arranged in a hierarchical tree. The goal of the subdivisive process is to split the population in such a way as to effect maximum reduction in the variance of all attributes in the resulting sub-groups. The creation of attribute hierarchies in these monothetic-divisive procedures is based upon the use of one of several alternative statistical algorithms. One algorithm which has been suggested for use with archaeological data is the sum of chi-squares (Whallon 1971; I972). In the classification procedure, division into subordinate clusters is effected upon the attribute which, at any subdivision step, has the highest sum of chisquares when considered in association with all other attributes. Application of chi-square in classification does not always yield good results, since the procedure tends to fragment the final solution by splitting outliers off from the population (Lance and Williams I965; 1971). Robert Whallon (197I) has developed a computer programme for monothetic-divisive classification (TYPE) which provides a potential solution to this problem by allowing the user to set a lower expected cell-value for eliminating tables from the chi-square calculations. Use of this option with mortuary data should be approached with caution, however, because there is no a priori way to estimate the expected cell values for the formation of clusters which are socially significant. Setting this value too high may result in a classification which fails to discriminate between burials accorded varying forms of interment. Two separate experimental classifications employing the sum of chi-squares were run on the Klunk and Gibson data. The first computation was run with David Wishart's (I969) CLUSTAN IA set of programmes in which the specification of lower cell-value limits is not possible. The results obtained with this programme are illustrated in fig. 3. A total of sixteen clusters were derived at the point where the subdivisive process was terminated. This classification yielded results which are far more acceptable than those obtained through the polythetic-clustering procedures. Satisfactory divisions were made on such energy expenditure variations as log coverings over peripheral graves and skeletal disarticulation. Unfortunately, in a manner characteristic of chi-square classifications, the algorithm produced a number of clusters which isolated idiosyncratic outliers from the population. Most noticeably, the procedure tended to allocate an unacceptably large portion of the divisive process to splitting off burial clusters on the basis of animal bone in the grave, a trivial attribute which occurs with an insignificant number of burials. Fully 50% of the terminal clusters were structured by the presence or absence of this attribute, yet animal bone occurs with only 0o5% of the population (2 out of 439 individuals). The allocation of such a major portion of the classification to this relatively unimportant attribute is a totally unsatisfactory outcome. In an attempt to solve the problems caused by the tendency of chi-square to split outliers off from a population, the classification was run a second time utilizing Robert Whallon's programme TYPE with the specification of a lower expected cell-value for


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Figure3 Monothetic division of Klunk and Gibson data using Sum chi-square (CLUSTAN)

Figure4 Monothetic division of Klunk and Gibson data using Sum chi-square(TYPE)

Social inferenceand mortuarypractices: an experimentin numerical classification

eliminating tables from the calculations. Whallon's (I971: 18-19) experimental work with the chi-square algorithm indicates that setting very low expected cell-frequency values will still provide a solution to the problem of isolating individuals possessing idiosyncratic attributes. Accordingly, the second sum of chi-squares classification run on the Klunk and Gibson data utilized an expected cell-frequency of I.o as a lower limit for excluding tables from the computations. The results of this second run are illustrated in fig. 4. A total of eleven clusters was derived at the cut-off point. These clusters did not prove to be susceptible to the problem evident in the previous classification, but this analysis did in turn produce its own peculiar set of undesirable features. The final solution of I I clusters succeeded in making a number of discriminations on the basis of such energy expenditure variations as log coverings, earth ramps, and disarticulation, but failed to segregate groups of burials defined by the presence or absence of log-walled tombs or limestone slabs placed over the grave. The results obtained from this classification can be considered only partially useful, and indicate that chi-square is not an appropriate algorithm for classifying mortuary data. An alternative algorithm for monothetic-divisive classification is the information statistic, which has been successfully utilized on the Moundville burials by Christopher Peebles (I972). The use of the information statistic in classification arises from the concept of entropy. It can be regarded as a measure of the disorder of a group, and achieves a value of zero if all members of a cluster are identical. When applied to a 2 x 2 contingency table, the information statistic is computed as 2(b + c)log2, where b and c symbolize respectively the upper right and lower left cells of the table. (For discussions of the use of information-theoretic measures in classification see MacNaughton-Smith I965; Williams, Lambert, and Lance 1966; Lance and Williams I968 and 197I; and Orloci I969.) Application of the information statistic to the Klunk-Gibson data yielded a final solution which satisfactorily met the specified classification requirements. A total of twenty-two clusters was derived which consistently isolated attributes reflecting differences in the amount of energy expended in mortuary treatment (see fig. 5). The procedure identified not only burials with log and slab covered graves, but also variations in the mode of construction of central features (log walls and earth ramps), and differences in the mortuary procedures (e.g. disarticulation) accorded to persons processed through these features. No fragmentation of the analysis occurred, and no trivial splits were made in the divisive process. Of the entire range of classification procedures tested, the information statistic alone has succeeded in isolating non-trivial sets of burials accorded equivalent forms of interment. It would seem therefore to be the most useful algorithm for isolating the structural components of a social system which are reflected in the varying forms of mortuary ritual.

As a conclusion to this investigation, we may consider the implications of these findings in a general framework which can serve to indicate the utility of the classification procedures evaluated here for the analysis of other sets of mortuary data.








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division of Klunk and Gibson data using information

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Figure 5 Monothetic division of Klunk and Gibson data using information statistic

Social inference and mortuarypractices: an experimentin numerical classification Polythetic classificationprocedures


Of the polythetic-classification methods tested in this experiment, both the average- and complete-linkage cluster-analyses produced totally inappropriate results. These procedures proved incapable of segregating the data set into groups of burials accorded equivalent forms of interment. The factor analysis on the other hand produced far more acceptable results. Energy expenditure variations were consistently distinguished in the classification, in contrast to the polythetic cluster-analyses. Yet even with these positive results, it is difficult to recommend the use of factor analysis for the classification of burial data. For any set of mortuary data coded on a binary scale, the suitability of polytheticclassification procedures will be dictated by the amount of redundancy in attribute combinations. Perfectly redundant attribute-states represent situations in which clusters of burials are defined by the values of variables which are not present in any other cluster (cf. Clarke I968: 90-2). When such an ideal pattern is present, polythetic measures of co-variation will produce sets of burials which are clearly distinct, and which possess none of the draw-backs apparent in the average- and complete-linkage analyses reported here. In theory both factor and polythetic cluster-analyses could potentially be used for mortuary data. But in practice few or nQ sets of burials will ever display perfectly redundant attribute-combinations (cf. Saxe 1970: 102-9, 230-I). As a consequence, polythetic classification of mortuary data cannot be expected consistently to yield satisfactory and distinct burial clusters. Monothetic-divisiveprocedures Monothetic-divisive procedures are far more appropriate for mortuary data which can be coded binarily. The choice of an appropriate algorithm for hierarchial subdivision is crucial, for certain divisive methods have been shown in this paper to yield very poor results with mortuary data. The use of chi-square in this regard seems particularly inappropriate, in part because this statistic tends to split outliers off from the population. It is possible to overcome this difficulty by employing a lower expected cell-value for eliminating tables from the classification. Yet there is a more fundamental draw-back to the use of chi-square which cannot be circumvented. This is the inclusion of negative matches in the chi-square formula. The measurement of negative association is not considered desirable for mortuary studies, especially when the data set is composed of a large number of attributes, few of which occur positively with any single burial. In such situations, the inclusion of negative matches in the computation of an association algorithm will tend to produce a highly skewed sequence of subdivisions. Such a consideration indicates that the sum-of-chi-squares criterion should not be employed in the classification of mortuary data. Yet it should be pointed out that this discussion is intended only to indicate that chi-square is not appropriate for mortuary remains. Other forms of archaeological data might conceivably be amenable to the use of chi-square, as Robert Whallon's (I972) analysis of Owasco pottery indicates. The information statistic appears susceptible to none of the draw-backs of chi-square. This measure is highly sensitive to cluster size, does not fragment the final solution, and excludes negative matches from the computation. The information statistic was found in this experiment to yield the greatest number of interment clusters, and to isolate sets of


Joseph A. Tainter

burials which can confidently be interpreted as socially distinctive. Among the procedures considered in this paper, monothetic division utilizing the information statistic appears to be the most suitable technique for classifying mortuary data for the purpose of social inference. Acknowledgements The data sets utilized in this study were graciously provided to the author by Mr Gregory Perino and the Thomas Gilcrease Institute of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and by Professor Jane Buikstra, Northwestern University. The project was financially supported by the Foundation for Illinois Archaeology, while funding for computer utilization was supplied through the Department of Anthropology, Northwestern University. I would like to express my appreciation to Christopher Peebles for providing valuable comments on an earlier version of the research reported in this paper.
25.V. I974

Department of Anthropology Northwestern University

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Social inference and mortuarypractices: an experimentin numerical classification


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Abstract Tainter,J. A. Social inference classification and mortuary practices: an experiment in numerical

Recent cross-culturalstudies of ethnographicallyrecorded mortuary proceduresindicate that variationsin the form of mortuaryritual symbolize and reflectthe membershipof the deceased in the components of a social system. Such formal patterns of burial procedure can best be identifiedarchaeologically of throughthe numericalclassification mortuaryattributes.A general interpretiveorientationtowardsthe study of mortuarypracticesis developed in this paper as a basis for testing the relative utility of average- and complete-linkage cluster-analyses,factstatistic,forthe analysis,andmonotheticdivisionusing the sum of chi-squaresandthe information classificationof mortuarydata.The results of this experimentindicatethat classification with the informationstatisticis most suitable for analysisof the social dimensionsof mortuarypractices.