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.
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.
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.
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.