I am a huge fan of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series of novels. They are a perfect blend of intellectual references, irreverent creativity and humor that is perfect for breaking down the stress of graduate school and life. My favorite character is Death, partially because I’m a fan of his work and partially because I love the way that he attempts to understand the lives of humans. In the series, Death isn’t always present when someone dies, but he is there for many of them and present for special deaths for wizards and royalty. It is important to note that Death doesn’t actually cause the death- that is a biological function. His job is to usher the dead from the realm of the living to the realm of the dead, to sever the spirit of the human from the body and allow it to move into the afterlife- whatever their conception of the afterlife may be.
I think Pratchett is onto something here. The process of dying is an unavoidable biological act, but it is also framed by cultural expectations about what dying means and how the living should act in order to ensure the best possible death for the dying. Two new articles from Antiquity discuss the cultural transition of the deceased from life to death in Ancient Bolivia and Italy. We might all die, but how we perceive this, how the living determine the moment of actual loss of the individual and spirit, and how we ensure how loved ones are taken care of after their biological selves are dead varies widely by culture, region and period.
Robb et al. (2015) examine a Neolithic burial site found at Scaloria Cave, located in northern Puglia (south-eastern Italy). This region was densely occupied during the sixth millennium BCE by small groups of families living in villages. They depended primarily upon domesticated plants and livestock for survival. There is a wide range of burial practices at these sites including single burials, multiple burials, cranial retrieval, curation and re-deposition, and exposure of the dead to the elements. Scaloria Cave consists of numerous deep chambers with low accessibility, where the Neolithic people used to place fine pottery vessels to collect water dripping from stalactites. The Upper Chamber of the cave was also used intermittently for the disposal of the dead.
The burial sample includes an estimated 22 to 31 individuals, but due to the highly fragmented nature of the remains, the actual total is likely much higher. The majority of remains belong to juveniles and young adults, and both males and females are present. There are no particular patterns of disease or trauma, although cribra orbitalia is common (evidence of iron deficiency). There are five unique burial patterns present in this sample: 1) collective secondary burial, 2) individual burials whose skulls were removed, 3) isolated skulls, 4) single burial without grave goods, and 5) single burial with grave goods. All of the remains were found disarticulated and mixed preventing identification of specific individuals.
Analysis of the remains showed that there were bones that were deliberately broken and some had evidence of cut marks to remove flesh and ligaments, or to disarticulate. Based on the skeletal and burial evidence, Robb et al. (2015) argue that these remains weren’t really burials of individuals but rather disposal of skeletal elements from individuals. Strontium isotope analysis (which can help determine where individuals were originally from) showed that these bones came from a range of locations within the broader region. It is more likely that these were parts of individuals rather than complete bodies. The surviving community members selected parts of the recently and long ago deceased, either removing bones easily from the skeletonized remains or defleshing the bones to remove them from the larger body. These were then deposited in the cave as part of a larger regional ritual.
But what did this act mean? Bones were carefully defleshed and cleaned prior to disposal in the cave- so they weren’t discarded like trash. Robb et al. (2015) suggest that this ritual may mark the end of the mourning period for this community. As we’ve discussed before, death is a rite of passage. It is a three-part process involving 1) a separation of an individual from their previous identity, 2) a liminal phase of separation and lack of identity, and 3) a final stage where the individual rejoins society with a new identity. Both mourners and the deceased go through this process as the dead goes from alive to dead to becoming an ancestor, and the mourners transition from a life with the deceased to a life without. The deposition of the bones in the cave, in a manner that is both careful and careless, may act the end of the mourning period as the bones are cleaned and the transition to death is complete.
Death is both a biological and cultural act. For these Neolithic populations, death may not have been finally resolved until the individual bones were scattered in the cave among the other deceased from their community- mourners are allowed to end mourning and return to their social lives without the dead, and the dead are moved from the realm of the living into a realm of ancestors. It is an interesting process to consider, and one that needs to be explored further in other regions and periods… and I think it just gave me a great idea for approaching my dissertation work on Anglo-Saxon period burials.
Robb, J., Elster, E., Isetti, E., Knüsel, C., Tafuri, M., & Traverso, A. (2015). Cleaning the dead: Neolithic ritual processing of human bone at Scaloria Cave, Italy Antiquity, 89 (343), 39-54 DOI: 10.15184/aqy.2014.35