Know Thy Ancestors: Mortuary Archaeology 102 and Dames of Death

This week begins a graduate reading group, which I have named the Dames of Death. It consists of a number of mortuary archaeology graduate students. The goal is to read different articles and books on mortuary archaeology that we wouldn’t normally get the chance to, and then discuss them. In honor of this, I’m going to start posting my own notes about the readings so that you all can follow along. I will also post my personal discussion points from each.

This week we will be reading Childe 1945 and Ucko 1969. Today I will simply be discussing Childe’s work, and save Ucko’s for a larger discussion regarding the use of ethnography in mortuary archaeology later this week.

For anyone who knows me personally, you’ll know I have a strong affinity for V. Gordon Childe. His work “Man Makes Himself” is still relevant to archaeology, and has helped with my own theoretical conceptions of the past. I was even a graduate student in the archaeology department that he founded at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. His paper on “Directional Changes in Funerary Practices During 50,000 Years” is one of the great early works in mortuary archaeology.

Childe’s work is clearly dated, his strong goal-directed evolutionary and Marxist theoretical inclinations are evident throughout. However, his work remains relevant to mortuary archaeologists. Childe first looks at disposal of corpses, primarily the way that they were laid out- extended, flexed, or contracted, and traces this behavior from the Paleolithic to the rise of Christianity. He finds that in general groups change from contracted burials to extended, with individuals of higher status or wealth becoming extended first. Cremation is noted to be a form of disposal in competition with inhumation that became more popular in the Late Neolithic. The practice peaked in the Late Bronze age for European empires, but by the Iron age decreased in frequency everywhere. Certain groups, such as those in Asia, never adopted cremation practices.

Second, Childe examines trends in placement of burials. He argues that the earliest burials were found within dwelling, whether burial is within a cave that also may have served as a habitation site, or an actual house. With the rise of the Neolithic, Childe argues for a shift to community recognized cemeteries or collective tombs, although house burials continue in use until Hellenistic times. He argues that as populations grow larger there is a tendency for cemeteries to become located outside of the city, primarily for hygienic reasons.

Finally, Childe notes some trends in grave goods. He argues that the trends in the broader society are not necessarily accurately represented in the items found in a mortuary context. In the Neolithic, the evidence of the agricultural revolution is not evidence, with domestic farming tools rarely occurring in graves. He notes that as textile manufacturing becomes more important, the tools are included in the burial but the products are not (although this is probably due to preservation and not a true trend). He also notes that carpentry and metal working tools, while extremely important, were not buried with individuals. Finally, he notes that while certain individuals have more items than others, representative of their wealth, over time the frequency of these expensive items does not increase, and that there is an overall reduction in grave goods of the wealthy. Royal tombs are given their own category, as they often display peculiarities that only a ruler could afford- such as the Egyptian pyramids or Viking ship burials.

He concludes by arguing that overall there is a trend for burials to become more austere and more segregated from the living population. Childe does note that this does not mean that over time people have become less sentimental or emotional regarding death. It may just be that there is more energy expended in the funeral proceeding leading up to inhumation rather than the burial itself. This holds true for all regions, and all class levels according to Childe.

Discussion Points:

Childe’s work does contain a high number of assumptions and is strongly biased by his theoretical inclinations. One problematic assumption is the idea that cave burials can be lumped with burials within houses. This stems from the main problem that Childe lacks explicit evidence for his assertions. His assumptions that there are linear trends in mortuary patterns is due to his Marxist inclinations, and deeply shapes the way that the information is presented. Also, reasons behind behavior are not fully examined, such as why cremation and non-domestic burial became popular.

These criticisms do not mean that we can discredit Childe’s work. He does note the contradictions against his linear theories, and it seems this work serves to reveal more inconsistencies with his theory than support for it. It is also important to remember that Childe’s work was part of the culture-history movement in archaeology, primarily focused on trends, typologies and descriptions. Childe’s work is important because it traces broad trends and on a number of different scales. He examines regional trends and compares these against others. These kinds of broad-scale studies are important in understanding what shapes mortuary practices. By comparing different eras and areas, we can have a better understanding of the roles that culture, environment and especially history play in how the living dispose of the dead.

My most important take away from Childe is the role that historical continuity plays in shaping behavior. As he once wrote, “man makes himself”.

And don’t forget, that Indiana Jones said to read Childe’s work on diffusion, because it is important towards becoming a good archaeologist…. that and “get out of  the library”!

Works Cited

Childe, V.G. 1945. Directional Changes in Funerary Practices During 50,000 years. In Man 45:13-19.

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