Commemorating the Dead in Mesopotamia

Arlington Cemetery, via Wikimedia

Burial is more than a way of disposing a body, it is intimately tied to group identity, individual identity, social customs and cultural beliefs. Funerals are a period of renegotiation and transition for both living and dead. In memorialization, the living recreate their own identities as well as create new ties to the recently deceased. As Chesson (2001:1) notes “mortuary rituals provide a sensuous arena in which the dead are mourned, social memories are created and (re)asserted, social bonds are renewed, forged, or broken, and individuals make claims for individual identities and group memberships”. Look at the military cemeteries such as Arlington have standard headstones which clearly show their group membership. However, some of these stones have symbols of their faith, roses or other personal effects by them, and if we were to excavate them the coffins would show variability. Those with more money may chose to get a vault to line the grave rather than the standard grave liner, and it is up to the family whether the individual is inhumed or cremated. Regardless of these individual choices, the overwhelming sentiment is one of citizenship, service and group membership.

A new article by C. Torres-Rouff, W. Pestle and B. Daverman (2012) discusses the process of burial and commemoration at the Mesopotamian site of Kish’s cemetery A. The goal of their analysis is to explore elements of living, dying, and remembering at Kish in order to interpret the construction of social memory and the function of memorialization in the broader socio-political context. Basically, this means that they want to understand the role funerary practices play in the creation, maintenance and negotiation of the community. These practices don’t necessarily reflect the society as it is, but may rather reflect the ideals. This doesn’t mean we should underscore the important emotional role that funerals play or the individuality of the deceased, however regularities are quite important for understanding the broader culture.

The ‘A Cemetery’ under investigation was used during the Akkadian occupation of Kish (2350–2150 BCE). The excavation revealed the remains of 162 individuals. The skeletal remains were removed during an earlier archaeological investigation, so context of the burials is only known for 63 individuals. The graves at were dug down from the floors of buildings or houses overlaying the remnants of a structure known as the ‘A Palace’, dating to the early portion of this era. Although the buildings may not have been standing when the area became a cemetery, the burials are oriented with the buildings.

Kish Burial from Archives, via C. Torres-Rouff, W. Pestle and B. Daverman (2012: Figure 4)

C. Torres-Rouff, W. Pestle and B. Daverman (2012) argue that this burial site was meant for commemoration of citizenship and construction of a communal social memory. They note that “there is a startling homogeneity to the Mound A [cemetery A] burials in grave structure, body placement, and the mortuary assemblage that we contend likely reflects the intentional construction of group social memory”. This is further supported by the lack of demographic variation; meaning that men, women and children of all ages were buried in the same format, as single individuals placed directly into a plain rectangular grave cut with various personal items and pottery. Given that this was a period of transition, with the Akkadian invasion, the standard burial practices are a way of maintaining a group membership and crafting a communal memory. While group membership is stressed there is some individuality in types and number of grave goods according to age or gender, although these are not strict group associations.

They conclude that after conquest it would have been important for the people of Kish to find a way to maintain their traditions and identity. By adopting similar burial practices they were able to re-create a social order that had been destroyed by the Akkadians. This cemetery reflects the “crafting of social memory at Kish, a confluence of normative, perhaps ideal, burial practice, and signs of the individual life”. This article is fascinating and does a wonderful job at arguing their point. Using the bioarchaeology, artifacts and broader context they are able to create a strong argument for the construction of a common identity through burial practices. It is wonderful to see disparate lines of evidence pulled together to create a coherent argument. Just as we see in Arlington, the burials at Kish are overwhelmingly standardized to show membership even though some personal and individual traits are expressed.

Works Cited
ResearchBlogging.orgC. Torres-Rouff, W. Pestle and B. Daverman (2012). Commemorating Bodies and Lives at Kish’s ‘A Cemetery’: (Re)presenting social memory Journal of Social Archaeology, 12, 193-219 DOI: 10.1177/1469605312439972

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