Mortuary Change and the Rise of Civilization

Ten thousand years ago in the fertile lands of the Near East, the first large sedentary communities were being established. Plants and animals were becoming increasingly domesticated, as populations became more concentrated. Public architecture and ritual areas were increasingly prevalent, as was long distance trade and prestige goods. As our 100-level archaeology classes once taught us, this was the rise of civilization- a period of transition from hunting to farming, savage to civilized. However, my first question has always been… what about the dead, how does burial change in this transition?

New excavations at Kfar HaHoresh are revealing more about the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB) in Israel. One of the goals of the twenty year excavation has been to understand how the transition affected ritual and mortuary practices. A number of burials have been found at the site, and an understanding of their mortuary patterns is currently under interpretation. A few interesting trends have been noted.

Preparation of burials are important contributor to understanding the living’s valuation of the dead. The more energy that is expended in the preparation of the burial can be correlated to the status of the individual or their relation to the living. In the PPNB, it is common for individuals to have burials goods, but low numbers per each person. Common types of burial goods include domestic tools like sickles, or small ornaments. Burials are commonly found within the households,  or within the vicinity of the structures. Three burials, where energy expenditure is unusually high, were found at Kfar HaHoresh and may be revealing about status and mortuary practices in the future. These include one burial with a number of wild cattle bones suggesting feasting, one secondary burial that has been rearranged for all bones to face east west and framed by vertebrae, and the final was surrounded shells.

Another trend is the removal of skulls, which have been plastered over. This is a unique to the PPNB, and has been attributed to ancestor worship. The skulls were selected from a wide demographic, with ages from 5 to adult, and both sexes represented. While the practice was widespread throughout the Near East, the act itself was community based- lending credence to the ancestor worship hypothesis. Studies by Goren, Goring-Morris and Segal of the plastering technique have noted that while style is similar, the actual plaster and the techniques are community-based. This suggests that oral communication of afterlife and ancestral beliefs was widespread, but that the actual preservation of the dead was community based.

One question that raises from this type of practice is what this means in relation to the aggregation of people and changes in economy. Increasing stress within and between communities over the accumulation of prized land would have led to many disputes over ownership. As agriculture becomes more important, so does the accumulation of the best pieces of land. The display of ancestors and the burial of one’s predecessors beneath the floor has been argued as a way for the people to justify their rights to the land.

While mortuary trends are establishing and new types of ritual burials are excavated, more nuanced interpretations of the PPNB can be developed. The treatment of the dead can be used to infer social organization, ritual beliefs and other cultural traits of a society. As excavations continue on sites like Kfar HaHoresh, we will learn more and more about the culture. Transitional periods are extremely important for understanding responses to stress and change.

If you want to help out with learning more about this period, you can join the excavation by emailing Ms. Michal Birkenfeld at through the Institute of Archaeology at  The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. While you are there, ask about the number of males and females found, the attribution of grave goods, and how their health was. Better yet, send me a site report. Even better, send a skull- I need a good way to claim my apartment and scare off some neighbors.

Works Cited

Goring-Morris & Birkenfeld. 2010. Kfar HaHoresh a cult and mortuary site in lower Galilee. Past Horizons.

Goren Y., Goring-Morris A.Nigel, Segal I. 2001 The technology of skull modelling in the pre-pottery neolithic B (PPNB): Regional variability, the relation of technology and iconography and their archaeological implications, (2001) Journal of Archaeological Science, 28 (7), pp. 671-690

5 responses to “Mortuary Change and the Rise of Civilization

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