Laws of Taphonomic Relative Timing and Their Application to Forensic Contexts

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James T. Pokines


In the analysis of taphonomic effects that have occurred to osseous remains, it is often necessary to interpret multiple overlapping changes. Individual taphonomic effects can be isolated from each other, and these follow rules of relative timing, whereby earlier or later effects can be determined. These rules are similar to those of archaeological and geological stratigraphy, from which the basic concepts of superposition and other physical relationships are derived. Taphonomic effects can be caused by multiple processes associated with early phases (death, decomposition, and scavenging of fresh remains) or with later phases (staining of bone surfaces, breakdown of the bone, and scavenging upon dry remains). The relative sequencing of the taphonomic effects to a set of remains can be used to reconstruct their postmortem history and to separate human activity, including trauma, from scavengers and other biological agencies. The four laws presented here pertain to (1) superposition, (2) positional aspect continuity, (3) original continuity, and (4) succession of changes. These laws can be applied more broadly in some archaeological/paleoanthropological situations, but the specific examples used to illustrate them here come from forensic settings. 

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