What Dreams May Come: Confronting Death — From Disposal to Ritual

Hugo Simberg, Kuoleman puutarha (Death tending to his flowers, 1906). Photo: Rafael Vargas, Public domain.

The Phantom Menace
“Death is nothing to us, since when we are, death has not come, and when death has come, we are not.” Thoroughly prosaic, this truly logic conclusion by ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus does only tell half the story. Eventually, death does concern each of us. It is the inescapable closing scene of life’s stage performance. And although modern science has unveiled many of the biological and chemical processes involved in dying, still all this effort fails to de-mask death itself. Death cannot be evaluated by experience, it can only be witnessed passively — the loss of others reminding us of our own mortality. However, living in a modern, fast moving western society almost keeps death and dying away, locked-up in hospitals and behind closed doors. Death has become a stranger to us.

Interestingly, recent sociological research stated a bewildering antilogy between the almost complete absence of death in public perception and a stronger individual reflection on the topic. A recent study by German sociologist Armin Nassehi and colleagues, who explored which picture of death actually exists in our society, underlined an increasing individualization regarding concepts of death. With decreasing significance of obligatory religious ritual, its conception and perception is becoming more and more diffuse. There seems to be no collectively shared and understood picture of death in current western culture any longer. Death has become privatised. The process of dying is dissolved from death itself, which leads to a growing number of divergent beliefs. Hence, there is a certain unsettledness regarding death and dying to be observed in our society; death — besides rather statistical casualty figures in news reports or the regular TV show murder — almost ending up a public taboo, individual death even more. Dying as biological consequence rather seems to be suppressed. Or, as author and archaeologist Tim Taylor put it in his remarkable book The Buried Soul: How Humans Invented Death (Boston: Beacon Press, 2005): “Death is seen as a tragic failure rather than as the necessary culmination of a good life.” While theoretically omnipresent, death remains invisible and absent — creating a tricky philosophical and cultural paradox.

Since there is no direct perception of death, no practical experience, every idea of it must remain a highly abstract one. Approaching death usually means by theoretical discourse — philosophical treatises and spiritual reflections put forward in the attempt to capture the inconceivable. Yet, centric to religion, philosophy, and art, it is this awareness of our own mortality which sparked a sense of individuality and self-concept, fuelling the cultural evolution of humankind in its quest for knowledge. But when did humans recognize what it meant to be mortal and how did they deal with this realization? Why do we bury our dead and when did we start to do so? At what point in our history did a natural necessity became ritualised behaviour with a spiritual background?

Here, archaeology can demonstrate societal relevance as cultural science. To the archaeologist death does matter, adding a very material perspective: Inhumations being one of archaeology’s most important sources. Certainly, the old picture of burial as mirror of life is only partly true. An elaborated funeral is an orchestration, often telling us more about the way the deceased was seen (or would like to have been seen) than about its real persona in life. Burial ritual needs an audience, it is directed as much towards the bereaved as the deceased. Thus, displaying a peculiar association with the dead, burial tradition tells us more about a society’s conception of death than the particular individual in the grave itself. Moving back in the evolution of human culture, the interpretation of such finds obviously is challenging, in particular plunging into prehistoric periods lacking written sources advising and explaining the complex spiritual background of such ritual. Imagine trying to solve a puzzle without knowing the original artwork, without any edge pieces and two thirds of the other pieces missing. Archaeology is about still trying to get a glance at the picture with the help of those tiny fractions available and looking at what it might tell us about the world around us and our place in it. Even in our secular times a burial is more than a social obligation towards the deceased, more than respect, grief, and solace. It is a memento mori — a reminder of death’s inevitabilityperpetuating the initial human awareness of mortality.

Appointment with Death
The percipience of inanimateness, the ability to recognize and realize a fellow’s death is deeply rooted in the conscious of creatures in excess of anatomically modern humans, Homo sapiens. Self-protection, the identification of potential threat by attracting carnivores and simply hygienic reasons may be noted as only a few impulses provoking instinctive reactions towards a dead individual. Insects like ants or wasps for example can be observed carrying corpses to refuse piles and rats are known, too, for their ability to detect dead conspecifics and bury them. Even emotions beyond this natural behaviour driven by instinct and triggered by chemical reactions during decomposition — like realizing the act of dying as individual loss and taking care of a dead body beyond mere means of disposal — do not seem to be an exclusive character trait of modern humans, but may be traced through the branched genealogical tree of our kind. Jane Goodall — known for her studies of social interactions of wild chimpanzees in Tanzania — described for instance, witnessing a juvenile male animal showing what seemed reflecting human grieving: It remained with the dead body of his mother, lethargic and with apparent lack of appetite. Similar behaviour could have been observed with other primates in zoological facilities, where chimpanzees appeared to care for the death of another individual, including testing for signs of life and disappointment for negative result. But also excited and aggressive behaviour is reported; and examples of dead bodies are known which were cleaned, or moved aside to be deposited at a more isolated space. Another interesting case of mortuary behaviour was documented by Christophe Boesch and Hedwige Boesch-Acherman among the pygmy chimpanzees of Ivory Coast. There, the death of a 10-year-old female animal was accompanied by a number of activities apparently representing care of the corpse, including high-ranking males guarding and later grooming the body which was carefully inspected by senior females, as well as assuasive behaviour towards the confused and fraught rest of the group. But despite these clear indications of primate response to death being related to an awareness of mortality, regular burials as an act of coping with death and probably creating spaces of memory are not known (or understood) from the animal world.

Trying to learn more about the origin of intentional human burial inevitably entangles us deep in scientific discourse. First of all, we are confronted with the question what actually constitutes ‘intentional burial’ and how big chances are to recognize it. Whether the ancient remains of a body in the ground are the result of some accidental entombment, an act of casual disposal or indeed evidence of careful and caring funeral can be deduced only by context. That is also the reason why to the archaeologist rather not the single object is so spectacular and important, but its overall context really is necessary to reconstruct a picture of the past. Relying on material sources, in particular for prehistoric periods and cultures without written evidence, archaeological interpretation is a lot about probabilities and possibilities. Always a ‘could have been’, hardly ever a ‘certainly was’. Furthermore, earliest proof of a peculiar find or feature indicating certain behaviour does only describe its oldest facet we know of. Of course, it is indeed possible, not unlikely even, that still some older evidence exists somewhere, yet undiscovered. With view to examples of modern primates to death kin, it seems highly probable to assume some kind of mortuary behaviour throughout the millennia of human evolution. Such activity preceding the recorded burials cannot be excluded only because it may have not left any detectable material traces.

There is a number of fascinating finds that encourage discussion on how early our ancestors might have started to lay their dead to rest. Emotions like dolour, mourning, and deference as well as the probable existence of corresponding spiritual background, a concept of the afterlife and ideas of the ‘beyond’ would have seemed hardly imaginable if not denied in the archaeological discourse only a hundred years ago for any period prior to the appearance of anatomically modern humans. And while it could be indeed argued that these are major prerequisites widely assumed constitutional for the custom of purposefully burying the deceased, it does not imply anything on the complexity of mortuary belief or ritual.

Only recently discovery and analysis of fossils from the Rising Star cave system in South Africa has fueled the discussion on ritual behavior among early hominins. Originally assumed to be 1.5 to 2 million years old, but in the meantime dated between 335,000 and 236,000 years ago, these fossils were proposed to represent as so far unknown extinct species now going by the name of Homo naledi. A number of skeletons found in a small underground chamber has been interpreted, e.g. by ‘Rising Star’-paleoanthropologists Lee Berger and John D. Hawks, as deliberately placed in the cave after their death. This hypothesis has faced some criticism and further research will have to show whether or not the disposal of these bodies really represents some kind of ritualized behavior already, but it illustrates the chances even such early archaeological record could offer — and the challenge interpreting it.

Other finds, dating to the Middle Paleolithic period, i.e. the second subdivision of the older Stone Age which has seen the rise and fall of human species besides Homo sapiens and a world covered by glaciers during the last Ice Age, may give witness of the early beginning of humans’ grapple with the meaning of death. Among these finds, some remains left by Homo heidelbergensis and the Neanderthal, Homo neanderthalensis, those extinct archaic relatives of modern human, are of peculiar interest to our investigation of the (pre-)history of funeral due to the implications regarding a concern with death they may express.

At the Paleolithic site of Pontnewydd Cave in Wales a number of teeth dating back 225,000 years and belonging to up to 15 early Neanderthal individuals were found deposited deep within the cave. Almost contemporary are the skeletal remains of at least 32 individuals of Homo heidelbergenis at the Sima de los Huesos (Pit of the Bones) within a cave in Atapuerca, Spain. While an accidental relocation and accumulation of these assemblages — which could have been washed into pits and shafts by rain or melt water — cannot be excluded, purposeful deposition of these remains was considered. Rather than calling it a ‘burial’ in the strict sense, British archaeologist Paul Pettitt, suggested their description as ‘funerary caching’ — emphasizing some intention behind the collection of these remains.

Assuming a deliberate treatment of the dead behind this ‘caching’ and considering it as some kind of funeral custom, it could be followed further on. About 100,000 years old, a number of highly fragmentary, mostly cranial remains of Neanderthal individuals from the sites of La Quina and L’Hortus, both in France, may as well indicate a continuation of this peculiar mortuary behaviour as the finds of bone fragments and teeth at a rock shelter at Krapina in Croatia. In particular a number of cut marks on some of the bones unearthed at the latter site as well as their smashed condition has drawn interest and fuelled discussion on potential cannibalism among Neanderthal communities.

Further sites with fragmented and similarly treated Neanderthal bones are reported from Belgium and France. While recent analysis suggests that some of these traces and most of the fragmentation may be owed to predatory animals and falling rocks, the incision marks are related rather to a manipulation of the dead body possibly reflecting defleshing and disarticulating in the course of mortuary activity. Such a mutilation of corpses may seem macabre or horrific to us, but excarnation as part of burial ritual and further procession of bare bones are not at all that outlandish as more observations from later periods and ethnographic record illustrate. In medieval Europe this practice was used to preserve the bones of exceptional persons of high status — just think of the numerous relics of saints kept in Christian churches. The same can be stated for a certain symbolic cannibalism playing a role in burial ritual as for instance the Yanomami, an indigenous people of the Amazon rain forest, practice it on certain occasions where the cremated bones and ashes of a kinsman are mixed with banana mush and then consumed by the rest of the group in a communal meal — keeping the deceased ‘within’ the community than rather letting them rot in the moist jungle ground. So, even if material evidence indeed is strongly suggesting cannibalism of sorts as this was considered to be the case at the site of Moula Guercy Cave in France for instance, where Neanderthal bones are reported to show similar traces of slaughter like the related animal bone material, with the possibility of subsistence, conflict or ritual, motivations for this behaviour may well be much more differentiated than suspected at first glance.

It should not be concealed that doubts were raised about the interpretation regarding a funerary character of these finds. Most scholars, however, tend to agree that cut marks and other traces of these corpses’ further processing may indicate at least a certain curiosity about and concern for the dead body and while admitting a purposeful intention to the phenomenon of depositing or caching bodies (or selected parts of these) in natural fissures, cracks and crevices, this behaviour certainly does not yet represent the final step towards actual inhumation. Indeed, there are a number of finds of Neanderthal bones interpreted as simple inhumations dating back to about 70,000 years and later when Neanderthal populates larger parts of Eurasia. These include sites like La Chapelle-aux-Saints, La Ferrassie, and Roc de Marsal in France, Spy in Belgium, Kebara, Amud, and Tabun Caves in Israel as well as Shanidar Cave in Iraq. From all these places possible interments of Neanderthal individuals of various age and differing preservation were reported. Further finds from Mezmaiskaya Cave in Russia, Kiik-Koba in the Crimea, Teshik Tash in Uzbekistan, and Sima de las Palomas (Pit of the Doves) in Spain are disucssed as potential Neanderthal burials, too. Again, in each of these cases concerns were raised about the purposeful nature of the burial in contrast to rather natural causes like e.g. accidental entombment. However, that all of these individuals are killed and buried by accident due to collapse on several separate occasions, in some cases even at the same spot at different times, would seem like a rather extraordinary coincidence. All of these graves, if we would dare to accept this interpretation, have in common a rather simple layout and apparent lack of grave goods. A number of stone tools sometimes mentioned, have been waived in most of the cases as not convincingly belonging to the burials’ context and the flowers originally thought to have been deliberately enclosed in the famous ‘flower burial’ at Shanidar recently were re-considered as result of animal activity.

What, then, are expectede implications and consequences of such probable mortuary behaviour? Do treatment and post-mortem manipulations of the dead body necessarily involve spiritual notions of an afterlife? This would be hard to answer as so far it still is being debated (although much in favour of them as of late) whether Homo neanderthalensis would have had possessed the mental and symbolical capabilities necessary for such far reaching funerary concept. The concentration of these inhumation traces at a few caves may either reflect extraordinary preservation conditions and special research interest in these sites, or — considering apparently repeated activity over a longer period as suggested by the great number of individuals at some of these sites — some kind of mortuary tradition attached to these places. The absence of grave goods on the other hand possibly indicates that focus of Neanderthal concern with death and the dead might have been more of physical than metaphysical nature. This has to remain speculation, but it certainly should be noted that these examples of peculiar treatment of certain individuals mark a rather exclusive encounter. It would be exaggerated and far-fetched to impute Neanderthals were actually ‘burying their dead’ regularly.

Interestingly, almost all examples of Neanderthal inhumations — in contrast to ‘caches’ of skeletal parts — are outdated by those of anatomically modern humans. These earliest ‘true’ burials by Homo sapiens date back to a time before 100,000 years ago and it still remains an open question whether the Neanderthal developed this idea of his own or maybe could have adopted it from modern humans, thus indicating close relation and communication between both species. DNA analyses by palaeogeneticists from the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany, revealed that, apparently, modern humans — at least all of us whose ancestor groups developed outside Africa (where Neanderthals never lived) — bears a little bit of Neanderthal genetic material, up to four percent, in their own genetic code. Skeletal remains discovered in the es-Skhul and Qafzeh Caves on Mount Carmel in Israel — which, dating back about 80,000 to 110,000 years, are regarded as oldest deliberate burials due to arrangement of bodies and objects included — seem to exhibit somewhat archaic characteristics reminiscent to Neanderthals and were initially regarded as transitional or hybrid form between Neanderthal and modern man. However, the debate whether both species did interbred and actually had joint offspring or if finds like these rather indicate descent from a common ancestor is still not settled as of yet.

At es-Skuhl Cave the remains of seven adults and three children were discovered, buried together with assemblages of perforated shells, and at Qafzeh Cave the remains of as much as 15 individuals — among these, eight children — were recovered. Most of them are interpreted as burials, clearly demonstrating a deliberate arrangement and the addition of pieces of red ochre close to the bones as well as ochre-stained stone tools. Other examples of such early inhumations come from Egypt, where at Taramsa Hill the about 55,000 year old skeleton of an anatomically modern child was discovered, and from Australia’s Lake Mungo, where the outstretched supine skeleton of a male with arms crossed in the fold was found . The burial, which was dated to an age of about 40,000 years (regarded Australia’s oldest known human remains thus), was also covered with red ochre — surprisingly, since ochre does not occur naturally in the area of Lake Mungo. Use of red ochre in burial ritual as indicated by these finds is intriguing as it is foreshadowing the then increased occurrence of ochre in the later part of the older Stone Age, in Upper Paleolithic burials — actually becoming one of their diagnostic features. The utilization of ochre for its colouring qualities during this period is well attested by traces of such colour at some of the famous Paleolithic female figurines like the ‘Venus of Willendorf’ from Austria or the marvellous cave paintings known from France and Spain.

This appreciation for ochre might go back even much further and could have been used by hominins as early as Homo erectus — ancestor of the Neanderthal in Europe and modern humans in Africa as well as the first of our kind to domesticate fire. While two lumps of ochre which were discovered at the Olduvai Gorge in Tansania among slaughter waste and stone tools dating back up to one million years ago still might be more of an odd coincidence, the find of several pieces of ochre in varying colours from yellow to brown and red at the habitation site of a group of Homo erectus at Terra Amata in France, 230,000 to 380,000 years old, clearly show traces of their use as pencils, probably for decoration purposes.

However, by the time of the Upper Paleolithic, ochre seems to have been become associated with mortuary ritual as its occurrence in numerous burials dating back 30,000 to 23,000 years suggests. The so-called Red Lady of Paviland, despite this denotation a male burial uncovered at a limestone cave in Wales, already is emphasizing this by name. The bones of this almost completely preserved skeleton were covered in ochre and accompanied by a number of beads and jewellery made of shell and ivory (hence the original interpretation as female burial). The presence of red ochre might have been charged with a symbolic meaning maybe due to its vivid colour reminiscent of blood. Next to this figurative appreciation, ochre could as well be thought serving practical purposes like the more recent example of the Anga tribe from Papua New Guinea’s Morobe province suggests, where in the course of mummification ritual the corpses of important individuals are coated with ocherous soil for conservation.

Examples of distinct burials known from large parts of Europe are providing evidence for extensive use of ochre in funerary ritual, which could be regarded as typical and common feature of these early burials despite their geographical dispersion, clearly demonstrating its spread over the continent during the so-called Gravettian culture of the Upper Paleolithic. At Krems-Wachtberg in Austria two infant burials were found in separate small pits. The first contained the remains of two newborn babies buried together and covered by a mammoth bladebone, the other hold the skeleton of an about three-month-old baby. The children were embedded into red ochre and probably laid to rest in some kind of leather or fur wrapping which was kept closed by an ivory needle in case of the single baby while the twins were provided with a necklace of ivory beads. Bones and soil in burials known from Dolní Vĕstonice in Czech Republic, one of an older woman and another one of two men and a woman, were also reported to have been containing traces of red ochre. While the collective burial was covered by burned logs and branches, the single female’s grave was hidden underneath two mammoth bladebones again. Next to the presence of ochre, this appearance of large mammal bones from mammoth, aurochs, bison, and reindeer can be noted as another characteristic of Upper Paleolithic burial. That these animals must have played an important role in the hunters’ lives even beyond a subsidiary function as game, probably in a more spiritual meaning — maybe as totemic animals — seems to be indicated by their depiction in the well-known cave paintings of that period as well as their occurrence in mortuary ritual.

From a burial ground at Sungir in Russia two exceptionally rich equipped graves are reported. One contained the remains of an elderly man, the other a burial of a boy and girl placed head to head in the pit. All three bodies were covered in red ochre and adorned with several thousand beads made of mammoth ivory, perforated arctic fox teeth, pins, pendants, bracelets, and animal carvings. A long spear of straightened mammoth ivory was placed in the double burial; rather unusual seems the offering of a large — possibly Neanderthal — thighbone, joints knocked off and the hollow filled with ochre. At Arene Candide Cave in Italy the burial of a young man, called ‘Il Principe’ (the prince), has to be emphasized due to its spectacular burial equipment. The body was lying outstretched in a bed of ochre and surrounded by numerous perforated shells, ivory beads and deer teeth as well as four holed and incised antlers. Several hundred small tail bones are seen as the remains of a cape made of squirrel fur and the flint blade this ‘prince’ held in his hand comes from a source more than 100 kilometres away.

In contrast to the sporadic single pendants or beads known from Middle Paleolithic burials which may rather have found their way into the grave as part of personal dress in life, the Gravettian interments with significantly increased number and quality of grave goods clearly speak for planned layout and outfit of these burials and may well reflect a specific conception of an afterlife, spiritual beliefs of an ‘otherworld’ asking for certain ritual treatment (and equipment) of the deceased. Furthermore, particular splendid equipped burials like the Arene Candide ‘prince’ or the graves at Sungir demonstrate that these might have been special individuals of some importance as alone the work and effort necessary to create the thousands of beads within these burials imply.

The Good, the Bad and the Revered
The number of known burials from this period is anything but representative for the majority of people, thus this kind of funeral seems to have been subject to few (somehow outstanding?) individuals only. Burial apparently was not the common way to deal with the dead — it rather may have been a very rare event as for instance the comparably few examples of ‘cached’ and interred Neanderthal skeletal remains show. With about 40% among the known burials of the Middle Paleolithic those of children are quite strongly represented — again indicating a purposeful selection. While a higher infant mortality or even preservation conditions may be factors to be considered in case of these earliest burials, these would hardly explain the observation that the majority of Gravettian burials seems to be those of physically outstanding, i.e. disabled individuals showing serious pathological features. Both women from Dolní Vĕstonice are reported with conspicuous physical attributes, the younger one in the multiple burial showing deformed limbs and the elderly from the single grave a disfigured skull which, interestingly, seems to resemble the distorted face of a carved ivory figure (and mask) found there too. At least one of the Sungir children seems to have had abnormal thigh bones and the skeleton of a male adolescent discovered at Romito Cave in Italy shows a form of genetically caused dwarfism. A young boy from Lagar Velho in Portugal — another child burial, also coated with red ochre and containing a periwinkle snail pendant as well as canine teeth and bones — must have been a rather unusual appearance judging by his body proportions and short limbs (which also led to scientific discourse whether he could represent another hybrid between Neanderthal and modern man). From Brno, also in Czech Republic, the burial of an adult male is known whose skeleton shows traces of lasting bone disease. The grave was discussed as example of a shaman’s burial due to what could have been a drumstick and marionette or doll cut from ivory found among the grave goods. A similar interpretation was suggested for some of the other examples too due to possible ritualistic items they contained, like the so-called wands cut from ivory at Paviland or the antler ‘batons’ from Arene Candide. Whether for their different physical appearance, the social role they had among their group or even both reasons (the former constituting the latter) — these individuals were purposely selected for burial. In case of the multiple burials even human sacrifice was considered by some scholars since it seems not very likely that all these rather young individuals buried together died at the same time. Since the archaeological record does not indicate any visible traces of violent death, this has to remain a hypothetic scenario. One thing becomes clear though with the Gravettien burials: This kind of funeral was reserved to a few, it was not intended for the masses. Most other people seem to have been taken care of in different ways. And although there is no reason to assume these were less respectful, they remain invisible in the archaeological record — like, for example, bodies disposed of in rivers or sea, maybe disintegrated or burned before, would not leave much of a trace. As odd and impious this may sound to our ears, such treatment of the dead is not that unusual — even in our days, in Hindu and Buddhist burial ritual for instance it is common to commit the burnt remains of a corpse to a river and in the Tropical Pacific the simple funeral into the sea was and still is a customary practice. Although this sure enough would not at all be the only possible explanation regarding the whereabouts of all these numerous other corpses (at least, examples for cremation are known as early as the Paleolithic — as a second, but incinerated skeleton from Lake Mungo dating to about 25,000 years ago or another example from Dolní Vĕstonice attest), but it emphasizes the difficulty of proving such ritual and behaviour archaeologically.

However, it is remarkable to note that these selective special cases mark the beginning of actual human funeral (although, some may argue, this must not mean a funeral in our understanding of dolour and commemoration, but a ritual disposal of specific individuals) — as even in later periods, when interment already seems to have become canon for a majority of the deceased, differing treatment of peculiar individuals in burial ritual can be observed in certain cases. Rather vaguely, these are denoted ‚deviant burials‘ due to conspicuous differences to what is considered ‘burial norm’ (implying we know such) — be it the spatial situation of the dead or the grave, its construction or apparently odd grave contents — and most often they evoke a rather negative interpretation. That is the reason, why we meet the occasional ‘vampire’ or ‘revenant’ in archaeological literature, implying these deceased were considered somehow dangerous and should have been constrained from ‘returning from the dead’. Without actually completely denying such interpretation, but pushing aside its implication of a diffuse fear of death and the dead, we have to admit that special treatment of some peculiar individuals must not necessarily mean something negative, but may as well be the expression of increased appreciation for instance — which might well be the case for these early examples brought up above.

It still would take quite some time in the evolution of human culture until these Paleolithic hunter-gatherer groups turn towards agriculture after the end of the last Ice Age about 10,000 years ago, developing larger and more complex societies during the Neolithic period (i.e. the younger Stone Age). On this journey, we will encounter the earliest (undisputed) evidence of flowers used in burial context: Dating back to almost 14,000 years ago, in four graves of the Natufian period found at Raqefet Cave in Israel dozens of plant impressions could have been identified within these burials. Since among the plants proven in these burials sage, mint, and figwort are prevailing, it was suggested that their aromatic scent could have been hoped to prevent animals being attracted to the the corpses. But it seems intriguing to see a reflection of our very own culture of mourning and remembering the dead by adorning their graves with flowers in this gesture. Symbolising life, its continuity and transience, flowering plants — colourful and flavoursome — still play an important role in present funerals. From protecting the dead to comforting the bereaved.

The larger number of skeletons from Raqefet Cave and related contemporary sites, including children and adults, could be seen as emergence of real cemeteries, indicating the broader custom of burying the dead which becomes more clearly in successive Neolithic cultures. With the emergence of sedentary farming societies a change in social structure and complexity of these groups comes along. A complexity which successively also finds its expression in spread and development of mortuary ritual. With a growing number of burials not only a diversity in ritual becomes visible, but also probable patterns begin to form, helping us to understand the motivation behind and possibly even the spiritual background leading to funeral ritual and specific treatment of the dead. In particular these early cultures taking the step from mobile hunter-gatherers to sedentary farmers in the area of the so-called Fertile Crescent (a then rather moist and fruitful landscape in Western Asia, from where this process of ‘Neolithic transition’ spread across the Euroasien continent) could teach another lesson on the role and meaning of funeral behaviour.

Near Eastern Neolithic burial ritual seems to accentuate a concern for the process of bodily articulation and disarticulation, excarnation becoming an important part of a multi-phase mortuary rite. This may have been achieved through an active manipulation of corpses as we have witnessed already starting most likely among Neanderthals. Another possibility would have been the so-called sky burial. Also known from historical times, for example Persian Zoroastrianism, and still practiced even today in parts of Asia, the dead are exposed to scavenging animals, often birds, until only the bare bones are left to be buried. We know of a number of iconographical examples suggesting a related Early Neolithic ritual maybe even offering at least a glimpse at the beliefs at their basis: Sculptures, stone reliefs and carvings from sites like Göbekli Tepe, Nevalı Çori, and Çatalhöyük, all in Turkey, consistently are depicting birds, mostly vultures, related to headless human bodies or separate heads, and possibly even excarnation sites and scenes. The supposed rather practical role assigned to animals in a mortuary ritual involving defleshing finds further support in the rich inventory of bird bones at Göbekli Tepe, where corvids make up more than 50% — suggesting a very attractive environment for these necrophagous birds, outlining a possible functional role of the early mountain sanctuary excavated here, after all the oldest monumental architecture known to this date, erected 12,000 years ago. Concern for the deceased’s heads seems noteworthy in particular. We do not know when the idea of a ‘soul’ was invented as spiritual concept, but this special care for and treatment of skulls could imply the belief in some kind of quintessence of a human being — head and face being more than just bodily parts, but also representing most individual features. Intriguingly, an interest and concern for heads, probably including excarnation, can be found as early as the Neanderthal burial from Kebara Cave. There, the interment of a complete individual was opened again at some point after decay to extract the skull specifically. While the further whereabouts of this particular Neanderthal skull remains unknown, a number of Neolithic skulls were carefully treated and, once bare of flesh and muscles, given back a face by applying a plaster of gypsum, coloured and with shells inlayed for eyes. Such elaborated skulls are known from Jericho in Israel and a few other sites in Jordan and Syria, and as analysis suggests, they were displayed in the houses of the living for some time before they have been finally buried. This seems to emphasize a deep relation of the living with the dead, an inclusion of the deceased rather than a separation — at least in the case of those selected individuals (maybe related to some form of ancestor veneration).

The sudden appearance of a rich symbolic iconography lacking forerunners in Paleolithic art (which is mostly dominated by naturalistic depictions) shows an elementary change in the mindset of our Neolithic ancestors, certainly reaching into the spiritual sphere. Following the spread of this new way of living and the cultural evolution it entails, we are witnessing the beginning of an increasing variety and multitude of burial ritual — from mummification to prevail the mortal body from decay to its deliberate dissolution through cremation. With the emergence of complex societies and the rise of elites also cult and ritual are institutionalized. Even with interment practice becoming more common and widespread, the burials of certain specific individuals are still set apart. Monumental funerary structures and rich burial equipment — from mounds of Bronze Age chiefs to pyramids of Egyptian pharaohs — are attesting a role of funeral ritual in the legitimation of power and authority, and complex conceptions of an otherworld. Personal status was not only relevant for the mortal existence, but expanded into the infinity of an afterlife too, as for instance the customary sacrifice of dead rulers’ widows and servants e.g. from Scythian, ancient Chinese, Norse burials and even into present age illustrate.

From the times of merely meaning the disposal of corpses for practical reasons, burial custom has come a long way — accompanying the realization of our mortality and the struggle to come to terms with it.

A Lesson before Dying
From its very beginnings to a multiplicity of ritual, development and evolution of mortuary behaviour shows a long history of human attitude towards death and the dead. Like each of us at some point in life, prehistoric humans had to learn to fully conceptualize death as definite and irreversible ‘brother of sleep’, answering the urge to know what happens to us after breathing our last. Archaeology offers the opportunity to get an insight into this cultural learning process by having a look onto our ancestors’ endeavour to comprehend the intangible and realize its inevitability by understanding how they treated their dead. And while confusion, sorrow, and even anxiety in contemplation of death may be deeply rooted in our ancestral heritage, the genesis of funerary ritual also demonstrates the effect of yet another essential human character trait: empathy. Tracing back the origins of concern for the dead thus may guide us a step closer to answering the old question of when and how we became what we are. Looking at the origins of funeral behaviour and the multifaceted development it takes in the evolution of human culture may challenge our attitude towards death, allowing us to see foreign, apparently macabre, or rather odd treatment of corpses with different eyes — detached from our culturally learned understanding of deference. Beyond the fence of our secular western society, we can notice that several cultures developed quite a variety of ways to associate death and the dead. Of course, in a globalized world like ours we are aware of the differing funeral customs of Shiva and Vishnu devotees in Hindu tradition, we have seen colourful pictures of the Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) in Mexico and read about exotic mummification customs of Pacific tribes in one of the latest issues of National Geographic. Yet this is only the proverbial tip of the iceberg, looking out of the water for the moment. Hidden underneath this surface waits a multitude of rituals, traditions, and customs. The story of humankind is filled with attempts to bestow death and dying a meaning. Digging deep into our past unveils an even more varied picture, a kaleidoscope of answers towards death. Here the past may procure a different point of view onto the spiritual phenomena and paradoxa of our present.

(This article was originally written in 2014 for “Archaeology for the People”, a competition for accessible archaeological writing at Brown University’s (Providence, Rhode Island) Joukowsky Institute, and has been edited and updated for this publication.)

#Archaeologist, contemplating dust. Got a hat (no whip though). Once known as ‘Yunus’ among Bedouins. #Excavating, #illustrating, #communicating archaeology.

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