Cemeteries: Peaceful Resting Places or Competitive Interactive Arenas?

An unmaintained cemetery from Wales that shows how little interaction is occurring there..., via Bones Don't Lie

An unmaintained cemetery from Wales that shows how little interaction is occurring there…, via Bones Don’t Lie

When I think about modern cemeteries, I usually perceive them as quiet resting places for the deceased. As I drive by them they are usually well kept, maintained green spaces dotted with grey markers and monuments. Once in a while, there is a funeral or some other small group of the living moving between these stones, and on some holidays there will be more diverse groups bringing flowers to the deceased. In general though, I tend to see cemeteries as a more static, not dynamic, place- once the dead are placed there, we see little other types of interaction.

This perception of cemeteries as non-interactive locations, as merely final deposits of the dead, is problematic when we look at historic and pre-historic burial grounds. Simply because our modern Western culture doesn’t interact with the dead in their resting places doesn’t mean we can assume that other cultures present and past have similar behavior. We know for a fact in modern populations that this isn’t true. In Indonesia, some groups remove the remains of their deceased relatives from their graves in order to put them in new clothing very several years. They believe that the spirits of the dead are still within their bodies, and by re-clothing them, re-wrapping them, and interacting with the remains throughout the process, they are honoring the spirits of their ancestors. In Mexico, the graves of relatives are visited during the Day of the Dead in order to be cleaned and decorated. Often relatives will spend the day and night within the cemetery to honor their ancestors.

As archaeologists, we need to view cemeteries not as final burial locations, but as areas of dynamic interaction and power. A new study by Mizoguchi (2014) argues that a prehistoric Japanese cemetery shows evidence for competition and interaction between the living and dead. He examines the Tateiwa-Hotta cemetery found in the northern Kyushu region of Japan. The site dates from the late Middle and early Late Yayoi periods, 100 BCE to 50 CE. His goal is to examine the material remains of the cemetery and understand how they are created by funerary practice but also shape the way that the broader society is structured. Instead of focusing on static attributes of the dead communities, we should examine the dynamic relationship between the mourning community, the traditions that guide their behavior, how this changes social relationships and finally, how this would appear in material remains of the behavior.

Yes, it is a little confusing and super theoretical, but it comes down to the idea that the dead are not burying themselves, and we need to look at how the behavior around the dead shapes the lives of the living.

Jar burial, via Torwen

Jar burial, via Torwen

The burials from the Yayoi-period are a perfect era to investigate how dynamic and interactive cemeteries can be. The cemeteries consist primarily of jar burials. These jars are placed into grave pits that have steps leading down into them. This means that to some extent, we know that mourners needed access to the jars and may have interacted with them. In addition to this, the jars used in the burials are well-dated which allows for a better understanding of changes in interaction over time. Finally, there is detailed information about the settlements that used this cemetery which allows for comparison between the living and the dead.

The cemetery includes  45 burials, of which 43 are jar burials and 18 of these belong to adults. The earliest stage of the use of this area as a cemetery involved placement of two main burials. Following this, other jars were buried over time around these two earlier burials, or they were buried in their own cluster. During the next period, two new divided clusters of jar burials appeared on either end of the cemetery.

Mizoguchi (2014)  makes a number of observations: First, burials were placed into clusters and the location of these clusters seems to correlate with pathways leading to the cemetery. Second, the clusters suggest that there were different genealogical groups that preferred to be buried next to one another. Third, the jars that were used for burial seem to have wider links with other burials suggesting that different genealogical groups had different trading networks. Finally, grave goods found with each grouping suggest that there were changes in power, wealth and ability to provide for one’s ancestors over time- with different groups having different levels of wealth at different periods.

He argues that based on this, the cemetery was an area for competition through displaying wealth as well as a location for making connections to one’s ancestors. The cemetery acted as a place for negotiation and display of one’s status within the community- however, by having these different groups located within the same cemetery, it also shows that there was an important broader group identity that united them beyond genealogical differences. We can now view this space as one where different groups come up the to the cemetery from their different households to bury their relatives and honor their ancestors. The space is not empty or static, but is a place of active construction of new identities and re-negotiation of ties between groups.

Cemeteries are not static locations where the dead are deposited and forgotten. They are charged with emotional, political, economic and social power that is negotiated by the living when they come to these areas.

UPDATE 9/16/14: Thanks to reader Torwen, we also some these other great photos of jar burials from Japan!

Kanenokuma 2 (1) Kanenokuma 4 (1)


Works Cited

ResearchBlogging.orgKoji Mizoguchi (2014). The centre of their life-world: the archaeology of experience at the Middle cemetery of Tateiwa-Hotta, JapanYayoi Antiquity, 836-850

Watson 2012. “I wouldn’t be seen dead in that! Mummies dug up for a change of wardrobe” Daily Mail. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2193132/Mummies-dug-change-wardrobe.html#ixzz3CqIe5Zq9

Tafoya. Day of the Dead. http://www.unm.edu/~htafoya/dayofthedead.html

10 responses to “Cemeteries: Peaceful Resting Places or Competitive Interactive Arenas?

  1. Lovely post. Very interesting. On my campus (I’m a college student) there’s an old slave burial site, because this college actually used to be a plantation. It doesn’t seem very interactive, as the headstones are weathered and unmarked, and undergrowth has spread wild around the graves. On the other hand, the graves of the college’s founder and her daughter are still honored every year — every Founder’s Day, around the end of September, groups of students place daisies on their graves (because the founder’s daughter was named Daisy).

    It’s quite fascinating to note the different ways we treat the dead, not just people we knew, but people we honor. After your post, I was reminded of these burial sites we have here on campus and how they are treated differently. (Perhaps I’ll change that.) You’ve given me something to think about. I look forward to future posts from you!

  2. Thanks for -again- a very interesting insightful post about a topic that definitely needed to be addressed (if you are into dead prehistoric people that is). Today a graveyard might be a place to mourn the dead exclusively, but I never doubted that that burials in prehistoric times are more-dimensional in a way …. 🙂
    I haven’t read Mizoguchi’s article yet, but you made my mouth water 🙂
    PS you should have contacted me for a photo in a better resolution 😉 in these times (I guess it was 2007 or 2006) blogspot had the habit of mercilessly crushing one’s photos into as small a size as possible 😦

  3. Pingback: Around the Archaeology Blog-o-sphere Digest #2 | Doug's Archaeology·

  4. A very nice piece, indeed. Allow me to note, however, that there is a large literature on this subject from work done in Southern China and Southeast Asia, where secondary burial (ideally a temporary first burial followed by a permanent interment) is common practice. In the Chinese case, the fengshui (geomancy) of the permanent grave is supposed to have lasting effects on the health and prosperity of the deceased descendants, and the siting of the grave often becomes (pardon the pun) a serious bone of contention among competing branches of the family. Social class is part of the equation, since hiring a geomancer, building an impressive permanent tomb, and conducting the related ceremonies requires substantial wealth. The poor and those without descendants are often abandoned after the first “temporary” burial. They then become hungry ghosts, dangerous to those with whom they come in contact or to whom they may be related. See Watson and Rawski, Death Ritual in Late Imperial China [http://www.dmmserver.com/DialABook/978/052/007/9780520071292.html] for details.

    • Thanks for sharing this information- I’ll admit that archaeology in this region isn’t my forte so its nice to see readers like you stepping in to give it more context!

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