Landscapes of Death

Spatial analysis of cemeteries and mortuary sites is valuable for interpreting social structures, symbolism, relationships to ancestors and function. Burial sites are rarely incidental locations. Early American cultures buried the deceased in large platform mounds. Anglo-saxons buried their dead in the same spaces where the Romans did throughout England. Neolithic barrow tombs were territorial markers that were highly visible. Romans had specific laws on where the deceased could be buried, specifically outside of the city walls creating roads lined by cemeteries. Victorian burials were primarily in large open parks so that they could be enjoyed as well as commemorated. Many cultures bury individuals beneath the floors in order to keep their ancestors close. The places we choose to bury our dead is not random, it is part of a larger ideology. Bongers, Arkush and Harrower (2012) argue that the funerary towers of the Lake Titicaca basin were constructed to be central areas of ancestor worship as well as demarcate access to resources.

Example of a Chullpa, via

During the late intermediate period (1100-1275 CE) in the Lake Titicaca region there was the emergence of large above ground burial tombs known as chullpas. It was a turbulent period of disintegration of social and political structures that led to high warfare and competition. Chullpas are interpreted in this period as being the burial centers for corporate groups. They are highly visible structures and contain multiple individuals. It would have been a sacred place, where rituals for the ancestors could be performed. In addition to this, it was a clear indicator of ethnic identity and made a strong claim to the surrounding territory. Rituals around the tomb would have solidified group ties as well as maintained the group’s claim to the area. However, these arguments are all based on the assumption that these towers would have been visible, Bongers, Arkush and Harrower (2012) propose to test this.

Geographic information systems (GIS) can be used to combine large amounts of spatial data in order to form conclusions about landscapes. In order for the chullpas to be considered meaningful in the construction of sacred spaces and territories they need to be visible on the landscape. The survey covered an 80 square kilometer survey west of Lake Titicaca. The area is interspersed with mountains, hills and mesas. They recorded the location of domestic sites and tombs, however cave tombs were not included due to their lack of visibility. They found 257 chullpas within the region. These points were put into the GIS in order to determine their spatial arrangement.

Bongers et al 2012

The distribution is fairly random across the area, not leading to an even distance between them which would have suggested a more collective layout. There are certain areas, especially in the Southwest corner of the region, which have clusters of these tower tombs. Within GIS viewshed can be calculated. This determines the sight lines and visibility between locations, taking into account the natural topography. When comparing the locations of the chullpas against 300 random points, they found that the visibility of the chullpas was much higher than a random point. This suggests that their construction was not random, but rather was specifically set there in order to maximize visibility. Chullpas tend to be clustered in areas of higher elevation, therefore locations that are more likely to be seen.

Bongers, Arkush and Harrower (2012) argue that “visibility and elevation served as locational determinants for chullpas across this particular landscape of death”. The social climate during this period was one of communities competing against one another for resources and power. The communities kept inner unity through shared mortuary practices at these highly visible locations. By housing the dead in these spaces they were clearly claiming their rights to the surrounding resources. Inclusions of ancestors within the chullpa not only reinforced the ties within the community but also gave the individual heirs a claim to the local resources.

Studies of large spatial practices of societies are valuable but often not considered. By comparing locations for the deceased we can better understand how their function. Chullpas are not only tombs, they are physical markers of your claim to space. What better way to show that you have rights to an area than burying your dead there. It shows an ancestral claim that other markers of space cannot do. Bongers, Arkush and Harrower (2012) are able to show that these were constructed in order to be visible markers, uniting the community and dividing it from competing ones. We need to consider the landscapes of death, and how the living constructed and used these in life.

Works Cited

ResearchBlogging.orgBongers, J., Arkush, E., & Harrower, M. (2011). Landscapes of death: GIS-based analyses of chullpas in the western Lake Titicaca basin Journal of Archaeological Science DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2011.11.018

4 responses to “Landscapes of Death

  1. I would be interested to know how the groups that built the chullpas were organized, Were they family or kin-based or were they occupation-based, something like Indian caste groups? Would the latter possibility explain the clustering of the chullpas?

    • The chullpas were built by extended kin groups. The clustering is due to trying to build the chullpas on the land that will afford them the highest visibility. Since there are limited areas of higher elevation, the chullpas are clustered around these areas.

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