Alternative Ways to Enter the Archaeological Record (and Afterlife)

There are many different ways that cultures deal with the remains of the recently deceased. Some are more common than others such as internment in a coffin or cremation, while others are more unique such as the Tibetan sky burials. While it is fascinating to look at the different types of funerals, it is important to also interpret them from an archaeological viewpoint. While there is some debate over the use of ethnographic analogy, observation of current funeral trends may help in our analysis of mortuary sites. We can carefully use ethnographic information to aid in shaping our interpretations, though it should not be the sole form of evidence.



Recent excavations in Peru have uncovered a Moche burial which used flesh-eating insects as part of the disposal of the body. The 45 burials were excavated in 2006 and all date to within the Moche empire’s reign, approximately 100 to 750 AD. The burials contain the remains of numerous insects, including blow flies. Blow flies are one of the more important insects involved in the decomposition of human remains, especially in forensics cases. Given their numbers, it is likely that the corpse was open to these insects for at least a week. The second piece of evidence for their conclusion that the presence of insects was intentional and revered is the Moche artwork that shows pictures of insects and the dead.Artwork depicts the spirits of the dead being carried from the maggots to the adult flies, and then being spread amongst the living. It is important that both the burial and artwork be taken into consideration when making interpretations. A Moche burial covered in fly remains would mean that the person was highly revered, however the same burial in an Egyptian context would have been a disgrace.

Without the aid of forensics entymologists, this type of burial may have gone unnoticed or been interpreted in a different manner. Perhaps we also need to begin considering how we can interpret Tibetan sky burials in the archaeological record, or how smoked mummies may bias our dating methods. We need to be careful not to let our Western views on burials cloud our analysis of mortuary archaeology. The more we know about what is going on in the world today, the better we can interpret the past!

Works Cited

Vergano. 2010. Ancient Moche burials provided insects with banquet. USA Today.

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