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The Challenges of Determining Social Status
and the Impacts of Misidentification
L. Creighton Avery, Dept. of Anthropology, McMaster University
3. CASE STUDIES
Case Study 1: GRAVE GOODS (Jorkov et al. 2010). Danish Roman Age (1-3rd centuries CE)
•Rich graves: Those with jewelry and items made of precious metals (i.e. gold, silver,
•Simple graves: No grave goods or few very simple items.
•Lankhills status based on GRAVE GOODS: Rich 11%; Simple 89%
Case Study 2: GRAVE CONSTRUCTION (Redfern & DeWitte 2011). Roman Britain (1-5th
•Upper class: Presence of coffins and elaborate tombs (i.e. mausoleums).
•Lower class: No coffins, simply placed in the ground.
•Lankhills status based on GRAVE CONSTRUCTION: Upper class 88%; Lower class 12%
Case Study 3: GRAVE LOCATION IN RELATION TO ‘POWER STRUCTURE’ (CASTLE) (Bigoni et
al. 2013). Early Medieval Czech Republic (9th century CE)
•Castle (Higher): Buried in or near the castle.
•Non-castle (Lower): Buried further away from the castle.
•As there is no castle or single ‘power structure’ from which individuals could be assigned
status, adaptations were made to suit the Lankhills sample. The only structures which would
have been visible from the surface of the cemetery are three-sided enclosures found around
three burials. Those within or along the edges of the enclosures were interpreted as the higher
status group, in contrast to those unassociated with enclosures, which would represent the
lower status group.
•Lankhills status based on GRAVE LOCATION: High status 3%; Low status 97%
Case Study 4: MULTIPLE CRITERIA (Vercellotti et al. 2011). Medieval Italy (8-13th centuries
•Utilized grave goods, grave construction, and grave location to determine social status.
•Upper class: determined to be higher social status in two or three of the lines of
•Lower class: determined to be higher social status once or not at all, in regards to the
lines of evidence.
•Lankhills status based on MULTIPLE CRITERIA: Upper class 12%, Lower class 88%
Case Study 5: STATUS INDEX EQUATION (SI) (Sparacello et al. 2015). Iron Age Italy (9-1st
•Two-step formula that scores the rarity and value of grave goods (vs. quantity).
•Step 1- grave goods are divided into functional categories (i.e. footwear, vessels, coins)
and the Coefficient of Status (CoS) is determined. CoS = rarity (i.e., high CoS = more
•Step 2 - the Status Index (SI) is determined by multiplying the CoS by the number of
items in that category, and adding the values obtained for all categories that are present
in that individual grave.
•For example: LANK 040: 2 Vessels, 5 Personal Ornaments. SI =32. LANK 081: 3
Footwear, 2 Vessels, 3 Coins, 1 Weapon. SI =13
•Even though LANK 081 has more grave goods than LANK 040, the rarity of the
functional category “personal ornaments“ results in a higher SI value.
•Lankhills status based on STATUS INDEX EQUATION: Higher status 8%; Lower status
•The method used to determine status will have a definite impact on the distribution of ‘high’ and ‘low’ status
•At Lankhills, for 89.3% of the sample, social status determination depended on the method used.
•Set standards are not appropriate for determining social status; contextual analyses and in-depth research regarding
mortuary practices are needed within the context each sample examined.
•Researchers utilizing social status need to employ contextual readings of artefacts, and create methods that are suited to
•Future directions: incorporate more than funerary profiles into their analyses, such as biological status (MSM, biological
stressors, stature, etc.) which may be more independent to social variation.
5. INDIVIDUAL LEVEL RESULTS
1. STATEMENT OF PROBLEM
•Research question: Does the distribution of ‘high’ and ‘low’ status individuals within a
cemetery change depending on the methods used?
•There are no standards to determine social status. Instead, researchers use a wide variety of
methods to create divisions in the past.
•This poster examines methods used in 5 case studies, and applies them to the same cemetery
(Lankhills, UK). Results at the population and individual level are then compared to better
understand how these methods affect our results.
•Five papers which explore differences of social status were selected for case studies.
•All published in the AJPA (2010-2015).
•The criteria used in each case study was applied to Lankhills, a 3rd-5th century CE Roman cemetery, in
Winchester, UK (Fig. 1).
•627 individuals were included from two site reports (Clarke 1979, Booth et al. 2010).
•As this examination was not investigating differences related to sex, gender, or age, the sample was
not further sub-divided.
4. SAMPLE LEVEL RESULTS
0100 200 300 400 500 600
Individuals (Listed by burial record number)
Plotting Status Index
7. WORKS CITED
Bigoni L, Krajicek V, Sladek V, Veleminsky P, Veleminska J (2013). Skull Shape Asymmetry and the Socioeconomic Structure of an Early Medieval Central European Society. AJPA
Booth P, Simmons A, Boyle A, Clough S, Cool HEM, Poore D (2010). The Late Roman Cemetery at Lankhills, Winchester. Oxford Archaeology: Monograph No. 10
Clarke G (1979). Pre-Roman and Roman Winchester Part II: The Roman Cemetery at Lankhills. Oxford: Claredon Press.
Jorkov ML, Jorgensen L, Lynnerup N (2010). Uniform Diet in a Diverse Society. Revealing New Dietary Evidence of the Danish Roman Iron Age Based on Stable Isotope Analysis.
AJPA 143: 523-533.
Redfern RC, DeWitte SN (2011). Status and Health in Roman Dorset: The Effect of Stats on Risk of Mortality in Post-Conquest Population. AJPA 146: 197-208.
Sparacello VS, d’Ercole V, Copp A (2015). A Bioarchaeological Approach to the Reconstruction of Changes in Military Organization Among Iron Age Samnites (Vestini) from
Abruzzo, Central Italy. AJPA 156: 305-316.
Vercellotti G, Stout SD, Boano R, Sciulli PW (2011). Intrapopulation Variation in Stature and Body Proportions: Social Status and Sex Differences in an Italian Medieval Population
(Trino Vercellese, VC). AJPA 145: 203-214.
•At Lankhills, four of five methods produced similar results: a 10/90% split between higher and lower social status (i.e, grave
goods, grave location, multiple criteria, and SI) (Fig. 2).
•However, using grave construction as a criterion for status, 88% (n=553) have higher social status and 12% (n=74) have
lower social status.
•Coffin use may indicate higher social status at other Roman British sites, but was accessible to nearly all levels of
society at Lankhills.
•This shows that a one-to-one translation of material culture, even within similar geographical and temporal regions, is
not always appropriate.
•Adapting this method so only monumental grave constructions (e.g. stepped burials or enclosures, which would require
additional time and resources to construct) indicated higher social status, results show only 4% as higher social status and
96% as lower social status.
•Of the 627 burials examined (Fig. 3):
•0.5% (n=3) were categorized as higher social status using
each of the five methods;
•10.2% (n=64) were consistently categorized as lower social
•These individuals may represent the most affluent and poorest
of society (i.e., the extremes of both categories) and their
status is reflected in all aspects of their mortuary profile.
•89.3% were not consistently assigned higher or lower social
status; their identified social status DEPENDED ON THE
•Highlights that social status exists on a continuum, rather than
in binary categories of rich/poor or high/low status.
Grave Goods Grave Construction Grave Location Multivariable "Status Index"
Low Status 89 12 97 88 92
High Status 11 88 312 8
Percent of Lankhills Sample
Methods used to Determine High/Low Social Status
Figure 2: Sample Level Results
Figure 3: Individual Frequency of “High Status”
Source: Booth et al. 2010, 220.
Source: Booth et al, 2010, 35.
Source: Booth et al. 2010, 66.
Source: Clarke 1979, Figure 105.
Source: Booth et al. 2010, 6.
Figure 1: Lankhills in relation to Roman Winchester