What is Taphonomy?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Taphonomy is the study of the processes of death, decay, and preservation. This branch of the sciences is utilized in a number of fields, from paleobiology to forensics, and it is a rich and diverse field of study. Students of taphonomy generally study the branch of taphonomy which relates to their area of interest, whether it be the processes of fossilization or the way in which organisms decay in different modern environments.

Taphonomy might be used on objects at a crime scene.
Taphonomy might be used on objects at a crime scene.

The term “taphonomy” literally means “laws of burial,” and it is in fact an ancient field of study. People have long been fascinated by death and the processes of decay, and many early students of taphonomy were interested in finding techniques to slow or stop decay. The Egyptians, for example, practiced extensive embalming techniques which were designed to preserve the bodies of their dead, while Buddhist monks historically studied human remains in various states of decay to contemplate the nature of death.

Buddhist monks historically used taphonomy to contemplate the nature of death.
Buddhist monks historically used taphonomy to contemplate the nature of death.

In the sense of paleobiology and archeology, taphonomy is used to explore how and why organisms are preserved. Archaeologists are often frustrated by the lack of information at specific sites, as compared with the diverse collection of items and others, and their studies have shown why extensive artifacts remain behind in some places, and vanish in others. People who study fossilized remains are also interested in taphonomy, because they are curious about why fossils form, and how gaps in the fossil record are created.

Those who study fossilized remains may also be experts on taphonomy.
Those who study fossilized remains may also be experts on taphonomy.

In forensics, taphonomy can become a crucial part of establishing and proving a case. Technicians who specialize in decay of human remains are extensively versed in the various factors which influence decay, from insect activity to temperature, and they can often shed insight on the time of death, whether or not a body was moved, and how long the body has been at a specific site. Taphonomy is also used to examine the arrangement of objects at a crime scene to sift out evidence from non-essential information, and to look for patterns and clues.

A taphonomist may deal with a wide range of types of decay on the job, and he or she is often good at lab work and field science. It is important for a taphonomist to be able to see a site before it is disturbed, and to extract information from the condition of a site and the artifacts found there, and he or she must also be able to perform tests in the laboratory to gather additional information.

A taphonomist has to be competent at lab work.
A taphonomist has to be competent at lab work.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@cloudel - I understand how you feel, yet I think of it in a different way. I am an archaeologist, and when I dig up an embalmed body, I know that the soul has long since vacated it. All I’m dealing with are the physical remains.

I feel like the individual who once occupied them has no idea that I’m there holding his body. This gives me peace about what I do, and about the fact that I am absolutely fascinated by what ancient embalming techniques did for these bodies.

Because of their methods, I can actually see the preserved face and skin of people from thousands of years ago. That, to me, is truly amazing.


@kylee07drg - I study taphonomy, and at first, it is disturbing. However, you quickly acclimate to both the smell and the sight of death. My curiosity and fascination with seeing something I never had before and that many people never get the chance to see overcame my disgust for it.

The majority of the population has no idea what happens to a body during certain seasons. They don’t know what various stages of insect larvae do to it, and they don’t know how long it takes to complete the decomposition process. I feel empowered by having this knowledge. I know that I went through some gross points to achieve it, and I feel like I’ve earned something worthwhile.


I think I would be disturbed to be an archaeologist studying embalmed Egyptians. For one thing, there’s the rumored curse where all the people who handled the excavation and observation of the bodies wound up dead. Also, there’s the distinct feeling that you are disrespecting their rest.

I also find it unsettling that people dig up the bones of Indians in mounds. Many people were buried there, and it’s a mass disturbance of their rest.

To me, a dead body is a thing to be buried and left alone. I understand that taphonomy is useful in the field of forensics, but for archaeology, it really only serves to satisfy our curiosity.


Though it is somewhat intriguing, I imagine the study of taphonomy takes a strong stomach. I personally have never been near a decaying body, but I imagine I couldn’t stick around long enough to study it.

I watched a forensics show on television about a university in Tennessee where students study taphonomy. This college actually owns a plot of land that they place dead bodies on so that the students can study them as they go through various states of decay.

People sign up to donate their bodies to this study. I can’t imagine being the loved one of a donor and knowing that their body is rotting in the open air and being infested by insects.

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