Know Thy Ancestors: Mortuary Archaeology Theory 101

When studying mortuary archaeology and bioarchaeology, its important to know where the arguments, theories and methods are coming from. If we are to understand how to interpret these, we need to have a strong grounding in the original works which inspired them.Two of the earliest works in mortuary studies are Hertz (1907), and Kroeber (1927).

Robert Hertz’s 1907 study, “A Contribution to the Study of the Collective Representation of Death”, is one of the earliest pieces of anthropology which looked at mortuary patterns. He identified that death is more than a biological end point, it is “a complex mass of beliefs, emotions and activities” and has “specific meaning for the social consciousness; it is the object of a collective representation” (1960:197). He acknowledged that death is experienced and dealt with in a variety of ways by different cultures, and that our own conceptions cannot be universally applied. While now this fact seems evident, it was an important first step in developing a more relativistic approach towards mortuary studies.

In interpreting an Indonesian burial, Hertz argues that it is essential to understand the local customs, the process that occurs from death to burial, and how the living behave. By taking the native perspective, Hertz does not force his own religious or mortuary beliefs onto the people, and records the information as objectively as possible. He notes the stages of burial, including the primary location of the body, as well as movement of the body throughout the process of the funeral, until its final burial (1960:198). Knowing this process has become extremely important in interpreting mortuary archaeology sites. The identification of primary versus secondary burials, as well as various funerary structures and areas is important towards creating more nuanced interpretations of the mortuary practices of those in the past. He discusses the intervals between death, funeral, and burial, as well as the departures of reality from the ideal. Hertz also discusses the Indonesian funeral rites and mortuary practices in comparison with other cultures in order to determine patterns (1960:203)(while noting it is reductionist to expect that all acts and beliefs have universal properties).

Hertz argues for two generalities, which I believe are important for archaeology. These include the concepts that “death is not completed in one instantaneous act” and that “death is not a mere destruction but a transition” (1960:203). When excavating static remains and artifacts, it is easy to reduce them to empirical variables and forget that death is a complicated sociocultural and biological process, and the form that it takes has ideological implications for the deceased and surviving individuals. Death is the loss of a “social being grafted upon the physical individual and to whom the collective consciousness attributed” different values, identities and importance (1960:207). Hertz brings to life the process of death in a way that mortuary archaeologists should strive to do.

Kroeber’s 1927 essay on “Disposal of the Dead” is often cited as the earliest article of importance in regards to mortuary studies. His article begins by noting a peculiar difference between the patterns and organization of the living and the seemingly irregular distribution of burials and cremations of the aboriginal of California. He aims to understand why cultures take a variety of strategies towards treatment of the dead by doing a cross cultural and multiple time period comparison of them (1927:309). Kroeber uses evidence from the Neolithic, Rome, and Modern day peoples, and examines burial types and funerary customs from almost every continent. Cultures vary both between one another and within themselves. Within a specific group, the customs can vary by status, gender, age or it can be idiosyncratic choice by the surviving family members or through request of the deceased prior to death (1927:313).

Outlines of different mortuary practices in Africa, from Kroeber 1927

Kroeber (1927) finds that there is a lack of stability in burial methods, locations, and rituals, but even this does not hold for every culture as Ancient Egyptian practices were relatively constant for thousands of years.  Instead of trying to create generalizations about funerary traditions, Kroeber argues that a historical approach must be used to assess patterns and causality. He argues that it is more likely that material and economic life has a greater effect on burials than emotion. He concludes that “in their relative isolation or detachment from the remainder of culture, their rather high degree of entry into consciousness, and their tendency to strong emotional toning, social practices of disposing of the dead are of a kind with fashions of dress, luxury and etiquette” (1927:314).

There are a number of important lessons mortuary archaeologists can glean from Kroeber’s study. First, that general theories regarding patterns of mortuary practices are not easily operationalized and may not function at all. Second, that in order to understand the funerary patterns and traditions of a culture requires a culturally specific viewpoint that assesses the material, economic and historic context, as well as knowledge of how the practices of that culture have changed through time. Finally, he shows the importance of taking a comparative approach in order to better interpret burial customs at a single site.

It is important that we understand where are theoretical roots have come from. Mortuary archaeology theory today is the result of the critiquing and building off of previous theories. To know how to proceed in the future, we need to know where we came from.

Works Cited

Hertz, R. 1960 [1907] A contribution to the study of the collective representation of death. In Death and the Right Hand. Free Press, Glencoe, IL.

Kroeber, A. L. 1927. Disposal of the dead. American Anthropologist 29:308-315.

 

Robert Hertz’s 1907 study, “A Contribution to the Study of the Collective Representation of Death”, is one of the earliest pieces of anthropology which looked at mortuary patterns. He identified that death is more than a biological end point, it is “a complex mass of beliefs, emotions and activities” and has “specific meaning for the social consciousness; it is the object of a collective representation” (1960:197). He acknowledged that death is experienced and dealt with in a variety of ways by different cultures, and that our own conceptions cannot be universally applied. While now this fact seems evident, it was an important first step in developing a more relativistic approach towards mortuary studies. In interpreting an Indonesian burial, Hertz argues that it is essential to understand the local customs, the process that occurs from death to burial, and how the living behave. By taking the native perspective, Hertz does not force his own religious or mortuary beliefs onto the people, and records the information as objectively as possible. He notes the stages of burial, including the primary location of the body, as well as movement of the body throughout the process of the funeral, until its final burial (1960:198). Knowing this process has become extremely important in interpreting mortuary archaeology sites. The identification of primary versus secondary burials, as well as various funerary structures and areas is important towards creating more nuanced interpretations of the mortuary practices of those in the past. He discusses the intervals between death, funeral, and burial, as well as the departures of reality from the ideal. Hertz also discusses the Indonesian funeral rites and mortuary practices in comparison with other cultures in order to determine patterns (1960:203)(while noting it is reductionist to expect that all acts and beliefs have universal properties). He argues for two generalities, which I believe are important for archaeology. These include the concepts that “death is not completed in one instantaneous act” and that “death is not a mere destruction but a transition” (1960:203). When excavating static remains and artifacts, it is easy to reduce them to empirical variables and forget that death is a complicated sociocultural and biological process, and the form that it takes has ideological implications for the deceased and surviving individuals. Death is the loss of a “social being grafted upon the physical individual and to whom the collective consciousness attributed” different values, identities and importance (1960:207). Hertz brings to life the process of death in a way that mortuary archaeologists should strive to do.

 

Kroeber’s 1927 essay on “Disposal of the Dead” is often cited as the earliest article of importance in regards to mortuary studies. His article begins by noting a peculiar difference between the patterns and organization of the living and the seemingly irregular distribution of burials and cremations of the aboriginal of California. He aims to understand why cultures take a variety of strategies towards treatment of the dead by doing a cross cultural and multiple time period comparison of them (1927:309). Kroeber uses evidence from the Neolithic, Rome, and Modern day peoples, and examines burial types and funerary customs from almost every continent. Cultures vary both between one another and within themselves. Within a specific group, the customs can vary by status, gender, age or it can be idiosyncratic choice by the surviving family members or through request of the deceased prior to death (1927:313). He finds that there is a lack of stability in burial methods, locations, and rituals, but even this does not hold for every culture as Ancient Egyptian practices were relatively constant for thousands of years.  Instead of trying to create generalizations about funerary traditions, Kroeber argues that a historical approach must be used to assess patterns and causality. He argues that it is more likely that material and economic life has a greater effect on burials than emotion. He concludes that “in their relative isolation or detachment from the remainder of culture, their rather high degree of entry into consciousness, and their tendency to strong emotional toning, social practices of disposing of the dead are of a kind with fashions of dress, luxury and etiquette” (1927:314). There are a number of important lessons mortuary archaeologists can glean from this study. First, that general theories regarding patterns of mortuary practices are not easily operationalized and may not function at all. Second, that in order to understand the funerary patterns and traditions of a culture requires a culturally specific viewpoint that assesses the material, economic and historic context, as well as knowledge of how the practices of that culture have changed through time.

 

It is important that we understand where are theoretical roots have come from. Mortuary archaeology theory today is the result of the critiquing and building off of previous theories. To know how to proceed in the future, we need to know where we came from.

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