Over the past two decades, studies of mortuary behavior have dramatically increased. This trend is often seen as a direct consequence of the rise of anthropological archaeology and the acceptance of the analysis of social organization as a proper domain of archaeological inquiry. As a result, mortuary data are no longer used only to speculate about primitive belief systems but rather to provide the main focus for studying social differentiation, cultural complexity, culture change, and demography (Bartell 1982:52; O'Shea 1984:1-3). In fact, mortuary ritual probably contains more information concerning social processes and culture change than does any other data category available to the archaeologist (Goody 1962:142; Tainter 1978:110).
It should also be kept in mind that the primary archaeological manifestation of mortuary behavior, a burial, represents only one link in the behavioral chain surrounding the ceremonial treatment and disposal of the dead. Mortuary practices involve several distinct stages: death, body preparation, burial chamber preparation, interment, and post-interment activities (Bartell 1982:53). The burial itself, however, should inform on precedent and subsequent behaviors (i.e., what happened before and after the body was placed in a pit or other receptacle).
Most studies of mortuary practices by American archaeologists have been concerned with status differentiation, particularly within ranked societies, and have used grave associations as their primary source of information (e.g., Brown 1971). Tainter (1978:121), however, has found that social distinctions were symbolized by mortuary associations in less than 5% of a sample of 93 mortuary systems described in the ethnographic literature. Because the way a culture disposes of its dead can mirror a complex web of economic and sociopolitical variables as well as ideological beliefs, Bartell (1982:52), Brown (1971), Binford (1971), Rothschild (1979), and others have pointed out that for studies of mortuary behavior to be productive, they must take into account the structure and organization of the total mortuary system, not simply the material content resulting from burial behavior.
After critically reviewing recent approaches to the analysis of mortuary behavior, O'Shea (1984:14) proposes that if mortuary remains are to be understood directly it is necessary to assume that only a single set of cultural directives governing mortuary treatment was in operation throughout the duration of a burial group. Following Binford (1971:13-18), O'Shea further states that there are regularities that link a society and how it disposes of its dead. The most important relationships are: (1) mortuary differentiation is patterned and integrated with other components of the cultural system; (2) mortuary differentiation accorded an individual is consistent with and reflects his social position (i.e., "social persona") in the living society; and (3) mortuary differentiation becomes more complex as societal complexity increases (O'Shea 1984:21).
In societies with little complexity, the dimensions of status differentiation are based on age, sex, and "differential capacities" for performing cultural tasks. In more complex societies, on the other hand, status differentiation is determined by culturally defined sociocentric statuses (Binford 1971:18; Service 1962:155). At the same time, there are no set rules concerning the degree of mortuary differentiation within any given society. Some may permit a lot of variation, whereas others permit only a little. And all social differences may not be recognized through differential mortuary treatment. In some societies, for example, the way a person dies may have primary influence in determining mortuary treatment (O'Shea 1984:36).
The spatial dimensions of the structure and organization of mortuary systems can be a sensitive barometer of social variability (Saxe 1971). Peebles (1971:87) in his analysis of Moundville burials found that individuals of high status were spatially separated from lower status individuals. Persons were segregated within cemeteries, and cemeteries within the site were ranked relative to one another. Individuals buried in mounds were further segregated from those buried in cemeteries. A similar mound-cemetery segregation has been reported at Etowah (Larson 1971) and Spiro (Brown 1971). "Status space" is a characteristic and significant feature of the mortuary practices of complex, ranked societies, and the structure of cemetery burials is reflective of the hierarchical nature of their social organization.
Cemetery burial may also provide information on social variables other than status. Tainter (1978:123) suggests that the presence of cemeteries reflects the importance of individual corporate groups; Saxe (1971:51) interprets cemeteries among egalitarian societies as indicating strong lineal affiliation; and Bartell (1982:51-52) states that societies with social structures characterized by clan or lineage organization usually will have distinct geographical burial locations within cemeteries. Thus, cemeteries may be expected in unranked, as well as ranked, societies as long as strong unilineal kinship ties define corporate groups.
One of the primary reasons for the acceptance of mortuary analysis into the mainstream of archaeological thought is that it can be tied directly to ethnohistoric and ethnographic data (O'Shea 1984:1). Although the use of these data does not suggest a one-to-one correlation between the acts of one culture and the material remains of another, descriptive accounts of mortuary practices can reveal behaviors that may be detected as patterns in the archaeological record. Obviously, the correlation between ethnographic or ethnohistoric observations and archaeological remains is considerably strengthened if there is an historic connection between the two, as there is with the Occaneechis. Nonetheless, ethnohistoric descriptions in particular must be closely scrutinized because they are usually filtered through the biased eyes of individuals from an alien culture. The ultimate test of whether such accounts are relevant to the interpretation of archaeological remains depends on how close the fit is between facts revealed by the archaeological record and the ethnohistoric or ethnographic model (see Ucko 1969:263).