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The Archaeology of Death

Mortuary Studies


There is, for all humans, no more fascinating subject than death. Understanding what happens when we die has formed the basis of all religion, most of culture, and major portions of science. And the way human skeletal remains are treated is often as politically controversial as human rights, ethnic divisions, and religious differences; in fact, I daresay that the treatment of human skeletal remains crosses all of those lines.

When faced with the recovery of human skeletal remains, archaeologists are interested in both the skeletal material itself and the accompanying grave goods, if any. From these we can discover the method of burial, the cause of death, the diet and general health of the individual, the genetic relationship of the individual to others, the rituals associated with the culture, the belief systems of the people that buried the individual, the diseases that preyed on the people, the prevalence of warfare, the climate of the community, the amount and type of work the individual did during his or her lifetime; in fact quite a bit of information useful to modern peoples is available.

The first, and perhaps the most obvious thing we learn from studying human burials, is the history of humans as social beings. Deliberate burials, to an archaeologist, is evidence of some form of religious belief; an expression of respect for the individual or, more controversially, belief in a life after death. By way of definition, and based on criteria from the French archaeologists Bouyssonie, Buoyssonie, and Bardon (1908), the criteria determining a deliberate burial includes a body flexed as if in sleep, the body placed in an artificially excavated or constructed closed or covered structure, protection or covering of the body by rocks or other method, the presence of grave goods such as flowers or food or other objects, and the evidence of magic or ritual practices. The earliest known deliberate burials were done by the Neanderthals about 80,000 years ago. Sites such as Shanidar Cave in Iraq, Teshiq-Tash in Iran, and La Ferassie and Grotte des Enfants in France have recovered individuals buried with stone tools, flowers, or jewelry, or decorated with red ocher.

Selected for your macabre amusement:
  • Death on Display Three fictitious Roman burials, from the Kelsey Museum at the University of Michigan
  • See Early Minoan Tombs at Prehistoric Archaeology of the Aegean, a terrific Dartmouth site I just can't stay away from
  • Death in Ancient Egypt from the Oriental Institute in Chicago
  • Warrior Women of the Ancient Steppes from Archaeology magazine

    PS: Thanks to Susan Dale who finally tracked down this article:

    Bouyssonie, A, Bouyssonie, L & Bardon, L (1908). Découverte d.un squelette humain Moustérien à la bouffia de la Chapelle-aux-Saints (Corrèze). Anthropologie (Paris) 19:513-518.

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