SAA Symposium on Unique Mortuary Rites

The following is a brief overview of one of the sessions I attended (and presented at) on Thursday at the SAA 2012 conference. I was the second presenter in this session.


O’Donnabhain and  Beatty discussed the role of the face in mortuary practices from Iron Age Ireland. They re-evaluated a potential ‘careless’ burial in order to determine whether there was more meaning to it. The burial consisted of a young female who was buried face down and covered by rocks. They argued that it is possible that she was buried this way to avoid the visual stare of the face of the deceased. An interesting argument they put forth was that the process of defacing this individual may have affected the perception of how she would enter the afterlife.

Meyers (thats me!) discussed the interpretive challenges of assessing cremation and inhumation at mortuary sites. The primary problem is that we discuss and analyse the two burial forms in different manners, with cremation as a symbolic process and inhumation as the more normal final burial. In order to create more appropriate conclusions, we need to assess the two in the same manner and create more nuanced interpretations. What I believe was most important, is that by assessing inhumation from the perspective of cremation, we can challenge assumptions we may have about the latter burial form.

Ghazal, Marshall and Munoz presented on burial traditions from early Bronze Age Armenia and Oman. They discussed the stone tombs throughout the region and how different burials were treated in them. Given the presence of different proportions of skeletal elements in different compartments of the tombs, they argue that the bodies were moved through the tombs at different phases of decomposition. The different burial forms that appear show different ideas on how the dead enter the afterlife.

Lozada, Knudson, Baxter-Stolztfus, Groh and Boytner discussed an interesting cautionary tale. They excavated an ossuary in Northern Chile, and it was unique because it is the only type of ossuary found for pre-hispanic cultures in this area. The examination sought to determine whether this was due to a specific event like a massacre or plague, or if this represented a certain group in society. Analysis of the bones revealed no clear trends. Prior to reburial, they discovered that the ossuary was not actually of pre-hispanic construction, but rather took place in modern times when a pre-hispanic cemetery was disturbed during construction. The workers created an ossuary of the bones. The unusual burial offers a serious cautionary tale for our interpretations.

Conlee presented on the atypical burials of the Nasca in Peru. She noted that while we find numerous trophy heads, it is rare to find the bodies that they belonged to. 5-10% of all skeletal remains from this period are trophy heads, and only a handful of bodies without heads have been recovered. Looking at these unique headless burials, a pattern of pottery with head like decoration and features is seen. The presence of these jars may suggest that a head was a necessity for entering the afterlife. She argues that regardless of the removal of the head, the presence of jars for heads suggests that these individuals were taken care of and there was concern over their afterlife.

Tung and Cook discussed the social contexts of fetus burials, which may be indicative of perceptions of pregnancy and fertility. They looked at burials from the ancient Andes, and found that there were clear patterns for fetus burials. They were often buried underneath an overturned pot, and were frequently found associated with an adult. The presence of these adults within tombs that were used repeatedly suggests that there was a family relationship. There are also numerous figurines representing fertility and birthing associated with the fetus burials. They argue that the treatment of the dead in the Andes was not meant to reflect reality, but rather was a way of constructing it.

The symposium was summarized by Brown, who acknowledged the importance of looking at unique and unusual burials as a way of clearly showing what was not normal for a culture. Deviant burials are good in that they mark the boundaries of acceptable behavior. He also argued for shifting our perspectives away from understanding the identity of the dead, and more towards understanding the social relationships of the living to the deceased.

Presentations were also made by Porter, Claassen, Tiesler, Wester-Davis and Tiesler. Overall it was a fascinating session, and I was truly honored to be a part of it. Hopefully there will be a follow up session (or maybe even some publications) so that we can continue to learn about these projects.


One response to “SAA Symposium on Unique Mortuary Rites

  1. Pingback: SAA Session Summaries and Overview « Bones Don't Lie·

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