The present paper seeks to analyze how a study of burial populations helps us to understand social, economic, or political hierarchies in an ancient society. The analysis is arranged in two main parts – four case studies based on the articles (Al-Shorman 2004; Dunham, Gold, & Hantman 2003; Liston & Papadopoulos 2004; Mizoguchi 2005) from academic journals (American Antiquity; Antiquity; Hesperia) and a comparative discussion.
Al-Shorman (2004) showed how the structure of three cemeteries in Jordan (6 A.C.) was important for recreating the social organization of the ancient Byzantine society.
Dunham, Gold, & Hantman (2003) examined how excavation and analysis of the late prehistoric collective burial site (The Rapidan Mound, Virginia, A.D. 900-1650) helped to reconstruct the social model of indigenous tribes of the given period. Liston & Papadopoulos (2004) clarified the issues of pregnancy and death in the ancient Greek world (circa 850 B.C.). Finally, Mizoguchi (2004) associated the dynastic or genealogical structure of the early first millennium Japan cemeteries to a strong link between families and land.
All the four researchers stated that burial habits of ancient societies were highly associated with social structure, economy, demography, health and religion issues.
The Byzantine Burials (6 A.C.)
Al-Shorman (2004) investigated three cemeteries near the ruins of the Byzantine church in Yasieleh, Jordan. A cemetery on the south side was reported to consist of multiple tombs carved in limestone rocks, whereas the ones on the western and the northern sides were cemeteries of single shaft either vertical or horizontal tombs. The cemeteries also differed from one another in planning. The southern cemetery was characterized by the tier arrangement of the graves, which were cut horizontally in the hillside; whereas the northern cemetery was planned in regular rows. The tombs there were cut vertically into the ground on top of the hill. Finally, the western cemetery was situated in the lowest part of the site and hosted both vertical and horizontal graves.
Al-Shorman (2004) hypothesized that the three parts of the burial site varied in the ascribed social value. Whereas the southern part was situated closer to the wine production facilities and crop storages (the centers of economic activity), the northern and the western parts were placed closer to agricultural land (the periphery of wealth and prosperity). The researcher (Al-Shorman 2004:308) concluded that the difference in the burial structure within those cemeteries might be explained by “the social organisation of the Yasieleh community” rather than by “a temporal change in cultural practices.”
According to Al-Shorman (2004), there were several factors affecting the mode of social life and rituals of death in the Byzantine period: Christianity and economic activities. As the scholar (Al-Shorman 2004:309) explained, “the Byzantine people did not regard death as a pollutant”:
The church was sited with a view to embracing the high ranking southern cemetery and the area of high production activity. The proximity of these high-ranking tombs to the site centre could be viewed as a reflection of frequent visits to the cemetery and/or the regular mortuary ceremonies that might have been practised there. The active area here conforms to the definition of post-mortem space […], which is the medium of actions. It is also the place for actions where meaning is created through social interaction […]. (Al-Shorman 2004:309)
According to Al-Shorman’s logic, religion was highly associated with social ranks and economic productivity. The richest and more socially prominent people were buried closer to the church and to the sites of economic activity, whereas the poorest and less socially significant citizens of the region were buried in the remotest parts of the Church ground. In regard to economic, or as Al-Shorman (2004:310) put it “practical” factors, wine and olive oil production meant a lot for the Byzantines. Therefore, those braches of economy were controlled by the Church and the elite.
If the southern cemetery is associated with this output, the two cemeteries of lower rank may be associated with the more rural end of agricultural production. […] If we consider the agricultural area as a metaphor for productivity and fertility, burying the low status people (who might be agricultural workers) in this area symbolises their contribution to productivity and fertility. (Al-Shorman 2004:312).
The Rapidan Mound in Virginia, USA
Dunham, Gold, & Hantman (2003) analyzed mortuary rituals of the prehistoric American indigenous people buried within the so-called Rapidan Mound in Virginia (A.D. 900-1650), where approximately between 1,000 and 2,000 individuals (aged from 15 to 35 years) were buried. Professionals (Dunham, Gold, & Hantman 2003) used to refer to such mounds as accretional because they “were constructed through accretion with discrete mortuary activity taking place regularly over a period of several hundred years.”
In the 19th century, the Rapidan Mound was of between four and five meters at its highest point and around 13 meters across at its base. Martin (1835), one of the first explorers of the site, stated that the bodies there were arranged in tiers with spaces of two feet between them. The heads of the buried people pointed north. Fowke (1894) identified submound pit burials and collective burials, the so-called “bone beds.” In the latter type of burials, bodies were arranged in layers.
Dunham, Gold, & Hantman (2003) analyzed the site referring to such factors as demography, diet, health, and the cultural context. It was difficult to distinguish the remnants in regard to sex. Dunham, Gold, & Hantman (2003) concentrated on the issue of age concluding that subadults were underrepresented in the mound. The low proportion of children and juveniles buried within the Rapidan Mound might be explained by the fragility of their bones. However, the researchers (Dunham, Gold, & Hantman 2003) supposed that there should be “alternative postmortem treatment for some young individuals, especially infants.” In regard to health and diet, osteological analysis of the skeletons revealed that people used to live on maize cultivation. Carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis showed also that people consumed prominent amounts of starchy foods. The inhabitants of the region were rather healthy. There were only about 20 percent of the remains with periostitis. Dunham, Gold, & Hantman (2003) defined it as “a bony response to trauma or infection [reflecting] a chronic, non-life-threatening infection.” The only health problem found with people buried in the mound was (Dunham, Gold, & Hantman 2003) “mild osteoarthritis of the vertebrae.”
In regard to cultural factors, Dunham, Gold, & Hantman (2003) stated that the act of burial was collective – in terms of the number of dead and the ritual participants with obligations or connections to them.” Thus the ritual was performed periodically when, at certain intervals, the defleshed remains of the dead were gathered up, brought to a common burial location, mixed and joined together on the surface of the mound, covered with soil, and left.
Generally, the scholar explained the specifics of burial ritual within the Rapidan by the significant density of population living in multiple villages. It was possible to calculate the average community size (nine households) and the average village size (circa 54 people).
Mother/child Cremation in Athens, Greece (850 B.C.)
Liston & Papadopoulos (2004) concentrated on the issues of birth, puberty, marriage, and death in ancient Greece. In 1967, a cremation burial was excavated near the area of the Classical Agora in Athens, Greece. Smithson, the archeologist of that time, described it as the “tomb of a rich Athenian lady” (Smithson 1968) and dated it to circa 850 B.C. It was of the trench-and-hole type, with a bottle-shaped cistern being sunk through the western floor of the pyre-trench. The tomb was the richest grave of post-Mycenaean times in the Agora area. In contained granulated and filigreed gold jewelry, ivory stamp seals, faience and glass beads, the ceramic vessels, and many pieces of Attic Fine Handmade Incised Ware. The list of artifacts made Smithson (1968:83), the discoverer of the grave, hypothesize that the place was inhabited by “wealthy Athenians, the supervisors of extensive farm lands, and perhaps also the directors of an expanding overseas trade.” The presence of the stamp seal referred to the fact that women took active part in that time economy.
It is suggested […] that property qualifications may already have modified the definition of an aristocracy based solely on birth, and that the lady in our tomb may have been the daughter of a pentakosiomedimnos, who as a member of the highest propertied class was qualified to serve his community as a basileus, polemarch or archon. It is not impossible that she, herself, was an archon’s wife […]. (Smithson 1968:83)
Tainter (1978) also correlated economy in the form of the so-called “energy expenditure principle” and burial habits. He (Tainter 1978:89) argued that the presence of jewelry and artifacts of luxury was associated with “higher social rank of a deceased individual [which] correspond[ed] to greater amounts of corporate involvement and activity disruption, and this should result in the expenditure of greater amounts of energy in the interment ritual.”
In 1967, Smithson identified a number of the animal bones cremated altogether with the bones of the lady. Her remnants were carefully assembled, which allowed the scientists to conduct facial reconstruction. Surprisingly, a more careful examination identified the bones from a human fetus in the grave. Thus, a rich Athenian lady was either pregnant or had recently given birth when she died at the age of 24-40 years. She was distinctly Caucasian, of 149.89-161.12 cm high, with normal development, with the body bearing no signs of injury. The fetus was of within four to eight weeks.
Liston & Papadopoulos (2004) examined the burial ritual of the ancient Greek folk on the example of the tomb from the point of pregnancy and mother-child mortality. Burial habits of ancient Greeks pointed at the clear distinction between infants and children. Many infants who died at the earliest stages of their lives or even before the birth were not buried altogether with the adults at the cemeteries. It was explained by the cultural tradition of Classical Athens to take a child as a member of the family clan only at the age of three. Corpses of younger infants were commonly buried within the home or settlement area within the Bronze and Early Iron Ages in Greece. In regard to the burial of mothers having died in pregnancy or during childbirth, they were cremated and buried in the tripod cauldrons. Liston & Papadopoulos (2004) explained it by “a taboo, or its aversion” as part of “some purification ritual.”
Japanese Jar Burials (A. D. 1)
Finally, Mizoguchi (2005) analyzed the highly-developed socio-technological complex related to rice paddy field agriculture basing his research on observations of jar burials of the Yayoi period (A.D. 1), northern Kyushu, Japan. He identified two types of burials in regard to spatial structure. The cemetery at Monden-tsujibatake comprised of 27 jar burials (of which 18, 9 adult and 9 infant, dated to the late Middle Yayoi period) was situated on a low-lying hill on the bottom of a floodplain. Three jar burials at the centre of the cemetery partially overlapped one another. The fact that each burial jar was lowered in the grave pit as if pointing to the preceding one before correlated to the three distinctive episodes in the early phase of the cemetery’s construction. There were a bronze ploughshare, a short iron sword, an iron halberd and the traces of two bronze mirrors found in the burials.
The contemporary cemetery of Uraedani comprised of 87 jar burials (85 of which dated to the late Middle Yayoi period) was situated on the ridge of a foothill in the mountain range surrounding a floodplain. There were no artifacts found there. At first glance, the burials revealed no particular type of spatial configuration. However, a cemetery consisted of micro-clusters of jar burials grouped in pairs. The burial jars were lowered in the grave pits in the same orientation like at Monden-tsujibatake. But in contrast to Monden-tsujibatake, the burial jars at Uraedani varied in vessel height.
Mizoguchi (2005:320) correlated the patterns of cemetery spatial structure and formative features to “the different social categories or strata to which those who were interred in the cemeteries belonged.”
The sequential clusters of three or more burials, and those cemeteries that contain them, tend to be associated with grave goods and other characteristics indicating that special care was taken and larger labour forces were mobilised. In contrast, those cemeteries exhibiting seemingly chaotic spatial structures yield few or no grave goods and rarely show any traces of special care or the mobilisation of considerable amounts of labour. This suggests that the former were cemeteries for groups that were internally differentiated and included higher-ranked subgroups/individuals, while the latter were cemeteries for groups that were internally homogeneous/undifferentiated and did not include higher-ranked subgroups/individuals. These examples suggest that burials of higher-ranked individuals tend to form sequential clusters. (Mizoguchi 2005:320)
In regard to the orientation of the jars, Mizoguchi (2005) hypothesized that in case of the Uraedani site, where the burials were grouped in tighter paired structure, the community traced some affined relationships between the most recently deceased individual and the one who had died before. In case of the Monden-tsujibatake site, the community might trace no kin ties between the oldest and the most recent burials but treasured the sequence of life and death in general.
In regard to economic and demographic factors, the cemetery of Monden-tsujibatake seemed to be used by the stable and “successful in the competition for land, production and exchange” (Mizoguchi 2005:324). The settlement which founded the cemetery in Uraedani was less prosperous, small and (Mizoguchi 2005:324) “budded-off [probably used to be] abandoned after only a couple of generations of occupation.”
To conclude, the paper refers to the four case studies of burial habits all across the world (Japan, Jordan, Greece, and Northern America) at different times. All the four scholars (Al-Shorman 2004; Dunham, Gold, & Hantman 2003; Liston & Papadopoulos 2004; Mizoguchi 2005) paid attention to a spatial structure of burial spots. The burials in Greece and Japan contained cremation jars and, thus, varied from the burial manner in Virginia and Jordan. The collective nature of the Rapidan Mound burial distinguished the site from the other three ones. The Jordan site is distinct from the ones in Greece, Japan, and Virginia due to its clear Christian structure.
All the four sites helped scientists to understand demographic characteristics of native societies. In their turn, demographic factors were strongly associated with economic values. Judging from the spatial arrangement of the three cemeteries, Al-Shorman (2004) emphasized the importance of wine and olive oil production for the Byzantines. Dunham, Gold, & Hantman (2003) identified presence of maize culture in the Rapidan region after examination of the remains within the mound. Liston & Papadopoulos (2004) correlated a large number of artifacts in the grave of a rich Athenian lady with her high social status. Finally, Mizoguchi (2005) pointed that people of Japan lived on rice and inhabited various types of settlements. Some of them were highly developed with their people founding structurally distinctive cemeteries with a number of artifacts in the graves; whereas some were detached villages with poor people living there.
To put it in a nut-shell, examination of burial sites in regard to their structure and types of remains in the graves contribute to anthropology and archeology. The type of burial sites, their density, temporal and spatial characteristics provide scholars with rich information on demographics, social and cultural structures, economic development of the region, clan and family relationships, religious and philosophic issues. Despite the difference in types of culture associated with them, all the burial sites tackled upon in the present analysis were found to be significant in their mirroring overall social structures.
- Al-Shorman, A. (June 2004). Three cemeteries and a Byzantine Church: a ritual landscape at Yasieleh, Jordan. Antiquity, 78(300), 306-313.
- Dunham, G. H., Gold, D. L. & Hantman, J. L. (January 2003). Collective burial in late prehistoric Virginia: excavation and analysis of the Rapidan Mound. American Antiquity, 68(1), 109-129.
- Liston, M. A.; & Papadopoulos, J. K. (Winter 2004). The “rich Athenian lady” was pregnant: The anthropology of a geometric tomb reconsidered. Hesperia, 73(1), 7-.
- Mizoguchi, K. (June 2005). Genealogy in the ground: observations of jar burials of the Yayoi period, northern Kyushu, Japan. Antiquity, 79(304), 316-327.
- Smithson, E. L. (1968). The tomb of a rich Athenian Lady, ca. 850 B.C. Hesperia, 37, 77-116.
- Tainter, J. A. (1978). Mortuary practices and the study of prehistoric social systems. In M. Schiffer (Ed.), Advances in archaeological method and theory, volume 1 (105-141). New York.
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