The Importance of Ethnography and Mortuary Archaeology

I’ve discussed the use of ethnography and mortuary archaeology before, specifically on the benefits of knowing the range of current mortuary behavior in expanding our interpretations of past behavior. A new find in Nepal shows how important ethnography really is in avoiding narrow conclusions and creating more nuanced interpretations.

In the Himalayas, a new death ritual has been found (Than 2011). 27 individuals were found in the cliffsides upon large wooden shelves. All ages and sexes are represented.The remains belong to an Ancient Himalayan group, of which little information is known.  The bones date to about 1,500 years ago, and since then the cliffsides have been eroding away, changing the mortuary landscape. While researchers hypothesize that the remains would have been placed in these cutouts in the cliffs through the use of platforms and ladders, the current state of the cliffs means that they are only accessible to expert climbers.

Of all the bones 65% show signs of defleshing, evidenced by cutmarks made using a metal knife. Evidence of this sort in other parts of the world often leads to conclusions of cannibalism, however this was not the conclusion of the research team. Judging by the patterns of cutmarks, they instead argue that the removal of flesh and the neat arrangement upon these cut outs from the cliff are a sign of veneration. Aldenderfer, the project leader, argued that “When you’re going for meat, you process a skeleton in a very different way than if you were trying to strip the flesh off”. He noted that in cannibalistic removal of flesh, the base of the skull is often crushed to remove brain matter, and many of the long bones smashed for access to marrow. In cannibalism there is a pattern of both cutmarks, percussion marks and shattering of the long bones. Aldenderfer instead argues that the remains found in the Himalayas was processed in a more respectful fashion, and that these caves serves as family mortuary tombs.

Aldenderfer arrived at the conclusion of veneration over cannibalism also due to his knowledge of ethnographic examples of defleshing in the Himalayas. The Tibetan sky burial is a fairly well known funerary process. In this practice, the deceased is dismembered and left in the open for vultures to remove the flesh. By doing this, the deceased’s soul can go into the sky. Another ethnographic example used by the research team was from the Zoroastrian religion, where the dead were defleshed and their given to animals. This type of ritual has been hypothesized as being the inspiration for the Tibetan sky burial.

Using ethnography can be a little tricky. Ethnographies can be highly biased, and may not always reveal information pertinent to archaeology. However, the purpose of ethnography is not to create direct analogies of behavior. The reasons for knowing ethnographic deathways is to have a better sense of the range of variation in the treatment of the dead and memorialization.

One important proponent of the use of ethnography as “widening the horizons of the interpreter” rather than using it as an analogy is Ucko (1969). Ucko examined an impressively wide range of ethnographic examples of mortuary activities in order to show the variety that exists in the world, both in the actual methods of disposal and the ideological implications. His analysis provides a differential diagnosis for mortuary archaeology. He discusses the use of grave goods in different rituals, where they can serve as identifiers of social status, or be provisions in the afterlife. In contrast, he also notes that in some cultures the wealth of grave goods that are attributed to the individual may not be included in the actual grave, but rather destroyed during a ceremony or passed onto relatives. This address the archaeological assumptions that grave goods correlate with status. Another assumption is that ideological beliefs correlate with the burial practice, but again, Ucko shows that this is not necessarily true. In cultures where the soul is more important than the body, after death the body may just be abandoned. What Ucko sees as being most important, is that archaeologists understand the range of variation, and search for the irregularities within cultures.

By using ethnography, Aldenderfer and his team avoid jumping to conclusions that cutmarks are indicative of cannibalism. Knowing the full range of potential funerary rituals, and how these may appear in the archaeological record helps the archaeologist in creating better interpretations of data by questioning their conclusions. More work needs to be done by archaeologists to collect information on modern mortuary activities. In order to know how these acts will appear in the archaeological record, it is up to the mortuary archaeologist to explore potential behaviors of the living today. I would gladly personally volunteer for to undertake this task!

Works Cited

Than. 2011. New Death Ritual Found in Himalayas. National Geographic. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/03/110301-himalayas-caves-defleshed-skeletons-science-nepal-mustang/

Uck0. 1969. Ethnography and Archaeological Interpretation of Funerary Remains. World Archaeology (1)2: 262-280.

One response to “The Importance of Ethnography and Mortuary Archaeology

  1. Great post! One of dr. Lewis’s favorite phrases is “the past is a foreign culture”, and its something that historical archaeologists have to remind ourselves regularly, since were studying the very recent past. This relevant to your post because we can accidentally use ethnography to draw direct conclusions, as opposed to thinking of them as another line of evidence to support or refute a claim. By gathering a number of ethnographic references as is done here, these researchers are being thorough scientists, not jumping to conclusions…great post that makes us think about how were making our links and using our evidence!

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