What can the archaeology of death tell us about the world of the living?

Posted · Add Comment

Normal disposal is by inhumement, entombment, inurnment or immurement, but many people just lately prefer insarcophagusment. That is very individual.”

  Waugh, 1983, 38


Death occurs to every human being and all societies employ a regular procedure or set of procedures for disposal of their dead. Burials have been traditionally studied in reference to the individual, revealing their physical attributes and in the context of the society’s religious beliefs. Though religious beliefs, if known, must be taken into account to understand the variety of attitudes towards death and burial practices, the “archaeology of death” can also be informative regarding social status and differentiation, demography, land rights, and craft production. Great care is needed however in interpreting the remains as our evidence is biased towards inhumation, one of several methods of disposal, and burial is only one part of the funeral ceremony. Moreover, there is evidence that the dead can be and were manipulated by the living, thus burial remains can give a misleading view of the society in question.


The analysis of burials is central to archaeology, moreover many cultures such as the ancient Egyptians, are known mostly from mortuary evidence. Such study is important as burial usually represents a direct and purposeful culmination of conscious behaviour, rather than its incidental residue. Preservation of remains can be a problem as, apart from natural decomposition, remains are often damaged by treasure hunters thus hindering the archaeologist in making valid conclusions about the society concerned. The discovery of well-preserved specimens, such as bog bodies or the frozen capacocha victims found in Chile and Argentina, is extremely rare. Ucko in his paper on the interpretation of funerary remains, stresses the caution needed in making generalisations about skeletal remains, tomb types, funerary structures and grave goods due to the great variety of burial practices, even within a particular society (1969, 262-290). The difficulties he describes will be discussed throughout this paper.


To understand the variety of burial practices, the religious beliefs, as well as the social and economic structure of the society, need to be analysed. This is because attitudes towards death vary, it is not universally feared as often assumed, nor is the funerary ceremony necessarily a solemn occasion. For the Nyakyusa of Tanzania the funeral can be a jolly affair, with much feasting and dancing (Huntington & Metcalf, 1979, 34). Similarly, the Mbuti Pygmies in Zaire express no public concern for or fear of the dead, and may laugh or joke when digging the grave, even when the body is being lowered into it (Woodburn, 1982, 198).


In addition, the common assumption that burials reflect a belief in an afterlife is quite unfounded, nor does the absence of proper burial signify the absence of afterworld beliefs. Concerning the former, numerous examples can be given, such as the Hazda in northern Tanzania where burial is simple, being seen more as a means of disposal. The Baka Pygmies from Cameroon also bury their dead but have no belief in the afterlife nor any conception of ancestors or spirits (Woodburn, 1982, 181-209). The other extreme can be seen in the absence of royal tombs within the Inca empire, as the dead Inca emperor was dried and preserved above ground and was worshipped as a divine, immortal being (Rowe, 1995, 29). Furthermore, grave goods may not necessarily represent a belief in an afterlife; alternatively, they can be expressions of a person’s personality/status, or merely a way of disposing of the deceased’s possessions (Ucko, 1969, 265). All these factors expose the difficulty in using archaeology without the benefit of written sources or oral traditions or at the very least rich iconography, in determining the society’s religious beliefs (Scarre, 1994, 82). Pictorial ceramics found in Maya burials have helped us in understanding their beliefs about the hereafter, but not without the later Popul Vuh, the “Book of Counsel”, of the Quiche Maya.


As mentioned, a particular society can use several different forms of burial, such as cremation, exposure and inhumation, of which only the last will show up on the archaeological record. In the case of the early Bronze Age cemetery at Mokrin, access to the cemetery was partially dependent on age-at-death due to the absence of under one year, thus a mortuary alternative such as cremation may have been in operation (Rega, 1996, 239). The forms of burial can often be correlated with the status, age or gender of the deceased; for example, the marital status of a deceased person amongst the Bolivian Laymi will affect how the corpse is treated (Harris, 1982, 63). The Lodagaa society in Ghana correlate types of graves to age and also to the status of a person, such as trench graves for evil people including witches, courtyard graves for grandparents and mound graves for children (Goody, 1962, 86). In addition, the cause of death such as disease, warfare or sacrifice may be related to the form of burial. All these factors must be taken into account when making any analysis of the living society in question (Ucko, 1969, 270).


It has often been believed that skeletal remains can, if well preserved, tell us much about the individual’s physical characteristics, particularly age and sex. A large sample of skeletal remains can give insight into the society’s health, disease, genetic relationships and occupations. Yet the Spitalfields project has cast doubt on this assumption. A thousand skeletons were excavated in a post-mediaeval crypt in Christ Church, Spitalfields, East London, of which four hundred were found in their coffins with plate information giving the name, age and date of death. When the sexual status was assigned to the individuals prior to using the coffin plate information, two individuals that were female were mistakenly described as male (Molleson et al., 1993, 23). Much more disastrous were the ages attributed to the four hundred individuals using traditional archaeological methods. Crude categories of under thirty-five and over forty-five were given, but only 39% of the adults of known age were correctly coded, 2% being over aged and 58% being under-aged (Ibid., 167)!


Detection of disease can be restricted by the fact that few, such as tuberculosis, leprosy, syphilis and arthritis, actually leave traces on the bones. It is also difficult to predict the cause of death from skeleton remains, particularly fatal injuries, as most injuries involving bone leave their mark when the individual has survived and the bone has healed (Molleson, 1981, 26). Traumatic or violent death such as human sacrifice is much easier to detect. Decapitation is represented by skulls with the first articulated vertebra intact, and dismemberment is indicated by skeletal segments and isolated bones with traces of cutting in areas of muscular insertion (Sanchez, 1993, 112). Two to three hundred burials have been found within the Las Avispas royal burial platform of the kings of Chimor, at Chan Chan, Peru. The individuals were mainly female, their bodies extended on their backs rather than seated or flexed, as was the normal Chimu burial position and they were stacked one on top of the other suggesting mass sacrifice (Verano, 1995, 199). The taking and preserving of heads of enemies which was common within the Paracas and Nazca cultures, in the Andes, is represented in the damage to the base of the skull which is broken to evacuate the brain and supporting membranes, and a hole broken through the frontal bone for the attachment of a suspensory cord. The Paracas cemetery in Cerro de la Cruz, Peru, contains thirteen such “trophy heads” in a cache not associated with the burials (Ibid., 204).


In a broader context cemeteries have been used in acquiring mortality rates, sex ratios and the population of an area. Yet as it has been mentioned, many bodies never reach the cemetery as the deceased can be disposed of in several ways. As the two main measures of demography are age and sex, the Spitalfields project has shown that such determinations can be far from accurate. We need a large sample and one that is demographically representative of the population. Yet life tables which are often used are highly generalised and have a large drawback in that a static population must be assumed, with no immigration or emigration, or population increase or decline, which no real population ever fits (Morris, 1996, 72).


Grave goods can be useful in giving insight into food and craft production of the society concerned. Ancient Egypt is a good example, as much of our information about daily life is derived from tombs which contain models of the objects used in life and tomb scenes depicting day to day events (Spencer, 1986, 29). Many seals have been found, inscribed with royal and official names which have proved useful regarding the administration of Egypt in the early Dynastic period (Garstang, 1907, 49). Even better, knowledge concerning the funeral ceremony can be gained particularly for the New Kingdom since tomb scenes of that age show exactly what occurred (Ibid., 51). Though much of our information comes from royal and elite tombs (the poor were buried in simple graves with few grave goods), many of the models give an idea of the industrial processes and occupations of daily life, for example, beer and bread making, spinning and weaving, and carpentry. Exotic goods found in graves can reflect trade relationships and even more can sometimes indicate residence of foreign peoples. There is evidence for a Oaxaca barrio within Teotihuacan due to the distinctiveness of burial practices within that sector in the city. Tombs were made in a style characteristic of ones in the Oaxacan area, and likewise so were many of the grave goods (Sempowski & Spence, 1994).

The most controversial interpretation of the archaeological record concerning mortuary practices is that specific treatment accorded to the individual in death, reflects consistently the status of the individual when alive (Binford, 1971). This hypothesis is dependent on the premise that mortuary differentiation does not vary independently of the organisation of the society that produced it. Tainter (1978) elaborates on this theory, stating that the greater the social rank of the deceased, the greater the expenditure of energy (and wealth) on the funeral, which can be observed in the complexity in treatment of the corpse, construction of the tomb/grave, duration of the funeral, and the quantity and quality of grave goods. Energy expenditure can be quite difficult to quantify, but if for example it is related to grave depth, tomb construction and ceramic volume in Nasca burials, it can reveal social ranking (Carmichael, 1995, 161-187). O’Shea’s case study of the Pawnee of central Nebraska, the Omaha of north-east Nebraska and the Arikara of central South Dakota, tests the accuracy of social reconstruction based on funerary practice, and found that an accurate social reconstruction could be obtained from the mortuary data, difficulty occurred only in identifying horizontal stratification (1984, 250).


Social status can also be interpreted from the quality and quantity of grave goods within the graves. The Paracas cemeteries in Peru are unique in the extreme emphasis on textiles as burial offerings. These costumes seem to have played an important part in defining an individual’s social category as great attention was paid to the designs and motifs (Dwyer & Dwyer, 1995, 160). An indicator of hereditary wealth may be the presence of rich graves belonging to the young, non-productive members of the society. Other indicators of restricted distribution of wealth may be expressed when only certain individuals have rich objects or a specific kind of object (Shennan, 1975, 284). In the case of the Chinchorro mummies, elaborate treatment of children, as well as women, may suggest identification of a kin-related group based on power and prestige (Rivera, 195, 67). Types of grave goods can also delineate gender status. An unusual example is the aforementioned cemetery at Mokrin, where the majority of grave goods and metal items were contained in graves of females, indicating for Rega symbolic if not actual female control of the metal trade (1996, 240). Care is needed in making such generalisations though, as the offerings may have been burnt before burial or displayed with the person then removed (Ucko, 1969, 266).


Saxe’s “hypothesis eight”, asserts that the emergence of formal bounded cemeteries and monuments reserved for the dead, indicates the appearance of unilineal descent groups monopolising access to some vital resource, usually land (1970). Thus the reason why megaliths succeeded cemeteries in certain areas was due to the greater pressure upon critical resources and greater strains within the social system. A formal disposal area was necessary that symbolised control of these resources in a more impressive, visible manner. However, Chapman argues that in certain localities there is evidence for megaliths being the earliest formal disposal areas. Moreover, do periods without evidence for cemeteries or monumental tombs reflect resource and social stability or rather result from our poor knowledge of the archaeological record (1981, 81)? Group claims may be symbolised by the funerary ceremony (of which archaeologically we cannot pick up) that does not affect the burial itself, hence appearance and disappearance of such monuments cannot be used to faithfully trace the rise and fall of competition over critical resources (Brown, 1995, 395).


Monuments have often been seen as an expression of elite power and control, (conspicuous consumption) such as the Egyptian pyramids. The change from mud-brick mastabas to stone pyramids has been suggested as reflecting the increasing power of the king and the increasing wealth of the Egyptian state, likewise, the decrease in pyramid size correlates to a decrease in royal power (Scarre, 1994, 76). This assertion has led to the idea that death monuments may reflect the social complexity and its development within a society, particularly if there is evidence of social stratification within cemeteries. While true, again care is needed as a decrease in ritual complexity does not necessarily reflect a decrease in social complexity. The change could be due to a transition in social emphasis to other arenas, or a change in attitude towards treatment of the dead.

The other theoretical development juxtaposed to Binford’s and Saxe’s hypotheses is that the dead are treated in accordance to the needs and wishes of the living, thus burials may not necessarily reflect, but rather give a false impression of the society concerned (Pearson, 1982, Shanks & Tilley, 1982). Shanks and Tilley argue that burials can reflect the ideology of the elite, concealing real social relations and legitimating the social order thus, “death becomes just another arena for expression of social roles and maintenance of social structure” (1982, 151). In support, in Cantonese society women are subjected to the same double burial procedures as men, and their bone urns are entombed along with their husbands. Yet traditional Cantonese society is very much androcentric; women do not become ancestors, their personal names never appear on lineage records and unless they marry their existence is not even noted on written genealogies (Watson, 1982, 178).


Pearson develops this hypothesis asserting that burial practice may not necessarily refer to actual relations of power but an idealised expression of those relations (1993, 110). Using the example of cemeteries in Victorian England, he convincingly demonstrates that the expenditure at funerals or on monuments may in no real sense reflect the actual wealth or social standing of the deceased, or the material conditions of the society. Concerning these cemeteries, it appeared that the poor spent more on funerals than the rich. A supporting example can be taken from the Berawan society in Borneo, where size and costliness of both the funeral and tomb construction is in accordance with social standing but that of the host, not the deceased. The responsibility, however, often falls upon the individual whose economic resources are not in accord with that of the dead, as a consequence high-standing individuals are sometimes marked by insignificant tombs and vice-versa. Furthermore, the Berawan are not an isolated case but are part of a common pattern seen throughout Oceania (Brown, 1995, 394).


The dead then can be manipulated by the living, particularly by those in power. Ironically these very people when deceased are also manipulated to maintain the continuity of kingship and legitimate present rulers. Inca society is an excellent example, the mummified bodies of dead Inca rulers were brought out during ceremonies usually concerning a succession and with offerings of food and drink, asked to intercede on behalf of living (Sillar, 1992, 111). The reason for this is that ancestors were considered as owners of land and had to be placated for its use by the living. Commoners also took part which included the sacrifice of children (capacocha) to various deities, consequently, power and respect afforded to these deities would be directed through the dead to the living (Ibid., 112).


In conclusion, the religious, social and economic structure of the society in question needs to be known before we can realistically evaluate its mortuary data. As observed, there may be great variety of burial practices even within a particular society. Care is needed in interpreting the remains as the “archaeology of death” tends to be an “archaeology of inhumation”, which is only one type of disposal and only one part of the funeral ceremony. Moreover, burials may not necessarily reflect, but misrepresent the society. Nevertheless, mortuary data if used with care, can tell us not only about the individual but also the society in question, such as social stratification, demography, craft production and so on. As Pearson aptly states “ the dead do not bury themselves”, an obvious point but one often forgotten (1993, 203).


Binford, L. R. (1971) Mortuary Practices, their Study and their Potential, J. A. Brown, (Ed.) Approaches to the Social Dimensions of Mortuary Practices. Memoirs of the Society for American Archaeology 25: 6-29.

Brown, J. A. (1995) Andean Mortuary Practices in Perspective, T. D. Dillehay, (Ed.) Tombs for the Living: Andean Mortuary Practices. Dumbarton Oaks: 391-405.

Carmichael, P. H. (1995) Nasca Burial Patterns: Social Structure and Mortuary Ideology, T. D. Dillehay, (Ed.) Tombs for the Living: Andean Mortuary Practices. Dumbarton Oaks: 161-181.

Chapman, R. & Randsborg, K. (1981) Approaches to the Archaeology of Death, R. I. Chapman, I. Kinnes & K. Randsborg, (Eds.) The Archaeology of Death. Cambridge University Press: 1-24.

Chapman, R. (1981) The Emergence of Formal Disposal Areas and the “Problem” of Megalithic Tombs in Prehistoric Europe, R. Chapman, I. Kinnes & K. Randsborg, (Eds.) The Archaeology of Death. Cambridge University Press: 71- 81.

Dwyer, J. P. & Dwyer, E. B. (1975) The Paracas Cemeteries, Mortuary Patterns in a Peruvian South Coastal Tradition, E. P. Benson, (Ed.) Death & the Afterlife in Pre-Colombian America. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collections: 145-161.

Garstang, J. (1907) The Burial Customs of Ancient Egypt. Archibald Constable and Co. Ltd.

Goody, J. (1962) Death, Property and the Ancestors. Stanford University Press.

Harris, O. The Dead and the Devils among the Bolivian Laymi, M. Bloch & J. Parry, (Eds.) Death and the Regeneration of Life. Cambridge University Press: 45-73.

Huntington, R. & Metcalf, P. (1979) Celebrations of Death, The Anthropology of Mortuary Ritual. Cambridge University Press.

Molleson, T. (1981) The Archaeology and Anthropology of Death: What the Bones Tell Us, S. C. Humphreys & H. King, (Eds.) Mortality and Immortality: The Anthropology and Archaeology of Death. Academic Press Inc.: 15-32.

Molleson, T., & Cox, M. with Waldron, H. A. And Whittaker, D. K. (1993) The Spitalfields Project, Vol. 2: The Anthropology. The Middling Sort. Council for British Archaeology.

Morris, I. (1996) Death-Ritual and Social Structure in Classical Antiquity. Cambridge University Press.

O’Shea, J. M. (1984) Mortuary Variability: An Archaeological Investigation. Academic Press Inc.

Parker Pearson, M . (1982) Mortuary Practices, Society and Ideology: an Ethnoarchaeological Case Study, I. Hodder, (Ed.) Symbolic and Structural Archaeology. Cambridge University Press: 99-113.

Parker Pearson, M. (1993) The Powerful Dead: Archaeological Relationships between the Living and the Dead. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 3 (2): 203-229.

Rega, E. (1996) Age, Gender, and Biological Reality in the Early Bronze Age Cemetery at Mokrin, J. Moore & E. Scott, (Eds.) Invisible People and Processes: Writing Gender and Childhood into European Archaeology. Leicester University Press: 229-247.

Rivera, M. A. ( 1995) The Preceramic Chinchorro Mummy Complex of Northern Chile : Context, Style and Purpose, T. D. Dillehay, (Ed.) Tombs for the Living: Andean Mortuary Practices. Dumbarton Oaks: 43-77.

Rowe, J. H. (1995) Behaviour and Belief in Ancient Peruvian Mortuary Practice, T. D. Dillehay, (Ed.) Tombs for the Living: Andean Mortuary Practices. Dumbarton Oaks: 27-41.

Sanchez, C. S. (1993) Funerary Practices and Human sacrifice in Teotihuacan Burials, K. Berrin & E. Pasztory, (Eds.) Teotihuacan: Art from the City of the Gods. Thames & Hudson: 108-116.

Saxe, A. A. (1970) Social Dimensions of Mortuary Practices. Ph.D. Dissertation. Ann Arbor.

Scarre, C. (1994) The Meaning of Death: Funerary Beliefs and the Prehistorian, C. Renfrew & E. B. W. Zubrow, (Eds.) The Ancient Mind, Elements of Cognitive Archaeology. Cambridge University Press: 75-82.

Sempowski, M. L. & Spencer, M. W. (1994) Mortuary Practices and Skeletal Remains at Teotihuacan. University of Utah Press.

Shanks, M. & Tilley, C. (1982) Ideology, Symbolic Power and Ritual Communication: A Reinterpretation of Neolithic Mortuary Practices, I. Hodder, (Ed.) Symbolic and Structural Archaeology. Cambridge University Press: 99-113.

Shennan, S. (1975) The Social Organisation at Branc. Antiquity 49: 279-288.

Sillar, B. (1992) The Social Life of the Andean Dead . Archaeological Review from Cambridge Vol. 11.1: 107-124.

Spencer, A. J. (1986) Death in Ancient Egypt. Penguin Books.

Tainter, J. (1978) Mortuary Practices and the Study of Prehistoric Social Systems, M. Schiffer, (Ed.) Advances in Archaeological Method and Theory 1: 105-141.

Ucko, P. (1969) Ethnography and the Archaeological Interpretation of Funerary Remains. World Archaeology 1: 262-290.

Verano, J. W. ( (1995) Where do they Rest? The Treatment of Human Offerings and Trophies in Ancient Peru, T. D. Dillehay, (Ed.) Tombs for the Living: Andean Mortuary Practices. Dumbarton Oaks: 189-227.

Watson, J. L. (1982) Of Flesh and Bones: The Management of Death Pollution in Cantonese Society, M. Bloch & J. Parry, (Eds.) Death and the Regeneration of Life. Cambridge University Press: 155-186.

Waugh, E. (1983) The Loved One. Methuen.

Woodburn, J. (1982) Social Dimensions of Death in Four African Hunting and Gathering Societies, M. Bloch & J. Parry, (Eds.) Death and the Regeneration of Life. Cambridge University Press: 187-209.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

4 × 4 =