Peruvian Sarcophagi and Children’s Cemeteries

Adult Sized Versions of the Chachapoyas sarcophagi, via Explore By Yourself

Adult Sized Versions of the Chachapoyas sarcophagi, via Explore By Yourself

Archaeologists conducting survey within the Amazonas region of Peru have discovered a unique find: 35 small sarcophagi belonging to the Chachapoyas culture. The Chachapoyas were given their name by the Incas, and it means ‘Warriors of the Clouds” due to their settlements in higher altitude regions. There are two funerary traditions for these people. The first is burial within tony house-like mauoleums worked into the cliff sides. The second is the use of anthropomorphic sarcophagi placed vertically in caves in high areas. These sarcophagi were created by bundling the deceased into a sitting position using rope and fabric, constructing a pole structure for the shape of the sarcophagi, and then using plaster building the sarcophagi around the person. They were painted with white, yellow and red in decorative ways. The site found by archaeologists recently is this second type of burial. What is unusual is that the sarcophagi average about 70 cm tall, which is smaller than other sarcophagi sites. This led them to infer that it was a children only burial sites. The second unusual thing was that the sarcophagi all faced west (Chase 2013).

The burial of children within a different area is not all that uncommon in the past or the present. Given the significance of the loss of a child, and the different perspectives towards children, their exclusion from the primary cemetery is an important statement, and not necessarily a negative one. The Tophet of Carthage is a good example of a cemetery set aside for a specific age group. It was argued that this site represented a sacrificial site for infants, however further research showed that the infant ages were representative of normal mortality curves. The reason for their burial in a different area was attributed to the fact that they wouldn’t have been viewed as fully functional individuals within the culture. Due to high infant mortality, not viewing them as part of the group until they were older wasn’t rare, it likely helped people cope with constant loss, and the separate burial would aid with this concept of a division between them and the rest of the group. (Read more about this site here).

In Ireland, the burial of unbaptised children within consecrated ground was forbidden in the past. Canon stated that infants who died prior to baptism were separate from the rest of the Catholic community in the afterlife, and therefore must be spatially separated. It was common for family members to bury these unbaptised children on their own in a cillín (plural, cilliní). This is an Irish term that basically consists of any historic unconsecrated burial ground meant for the unbaptized that is located away from the Catholic cemetery. The practice was first documented in the early 17th century, and many of these cilliní were extensively used. It wasn’t until 1969 that the Catholic Church decreed that there was hope for an unbaptized infant to gain entry into Heaven and introduced a funerary rite specifically for them, allowing their burial in consecrated group. Cilliní are now obsolete, but the sites remain present in many areas. These sites are often found in proximity to historic monuments or ancient ruins. The association of cilliní with ancient sacred places may have been a way for families to circumvent the Church’s prohibition and these sites of former sanctity may have been seen as a close second option to the consecrated grounds (Pankey 2012).

Graves from the Orphanage Cemetery in MN, via Joel Arnold 2013

Graves from the Orphanage Cemetery in MN, via Joel Arnold 2013

Other than separation of children due to perception as not being full members of the group, children may also be separated because of the place they lived or died in. At historic orphanages, children’s hospitals or boarding schools, there are children’s cemeteries for the individuals who died there and were unclaimed by parents or could not be transferred home. The Minnesota State Public School for Dependent and Neglected Children was created in 1885 and ran until the 1940’s. Over this time, they had around 300 deaths, 198 of these were not claimed by relatives or family and were buried in a children’s cemetery. Originally the cemetery consisted of small headstones with the name of the individual or simply a numbered plaque. More recent renovation and upkeep of the cemetery has led to the placement of crosses with names at the numbered plaques to restore the deceased’s identity (Arnold 2012).

The spatial separation of children and adults within cemeteries is an interesting phenomenon that needs to be closely investigated before making assumptions about why it occurs. It may be due to differences in identity, perception of age and lifecourse, or where these different aged individuals were. It could also be due to hundreds of unknown reasons. Whatever the interpretation, the death of children is a delicate topic, and must be approached carefully.

Works Cited

Chase 2013. Archaeologists discover Chachapoyas sarcophagi in Amazonas Peru. Peru This Week.

Pankey 2012. The Tradition of Separate Burials in Ireland: Cilliní and Place. Spectrum.

Kuriositas. 2013. The Strange Sarcophagi of the Chachapoya. Kuriositas.

Arnold 2012. Owatonna Orphanage Cemetery. Beneath the Trap Door.

4 responses to “Peruvian Sarcophagi and Children’s Cemeteries

    • I don’t actually know, but there is difficulty with determining that. Many early cemeteries lack infant and children’s remains, but it may be due to differential preservation (their little bones don’t preserve well) rather than a true separation. I’ll look into it and see if I can get you an answer!

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