Having reviewed the morning’s papers on the Mortuary Archaeology Today conference last month, I now discuss the afternoon’s 7 presentations within 2 sessions: Interpreting Burial Practices and Death and Mourning.

Interpreting Burial Practices: Variability, Transformation and Continuity

Joanna Dębowska-Ludwin (Krakow) was first up, discussing the mortuary data from Proto- and Early Dynastic burials from the eastern Nile Delta site of Tell el-Farkha. Complex mortuary deposition practices were found in the sequence down to 2600 BC, including the deposition of feasting gear including beer vessels and the deposits of cooked animal remains. The deployment of red ochre and mud in graves was also noted. The evidence shows considerable variation, but also themes in mortuary investment in the grave. From the evidence presented, it was difficult to fully unravel the complex mortuary sequence and how graves of successive periods responded to the presence of former graves.

Staying with Ancient Egypt, Tian Tian (UCL) explored the cemetery of Tarkhan-Kafr Ammar, investigating the reasons for the disappearance of grave-goods with the dead during 3rd millennium BC. Rather than reading this change in terms of social stratification alone, he postulates a shifting of emphasis away from the grave itself towards the procession to the grave and the above-ground monumentalisation of the dead. How this distinctive perspective offers an alternative to the ‘social’ reading of mortuary practice remains to be seen.

Sarah Schrader (Leiden) took the discussions southwards to Nubia and from the 3rd down to the 1st millennium BC, addressing continuities in the treatment of the dead over the long term. She identifies ‘Nubia’ styles of mortuary practice that endure and resurface following Egyptian influence: notably crouched burial positions. How much this evidence reflects an enduring ‘ethnic’ sense of identity expressed in death ritual and fostered over the long term, certainly requires further consideration.

Together these papers provided alternative perspectives on long-term diachronic shifts in mortuary variability, although a coherent engagement with theories of mortuary change in social, economic and ideological terms could have been attempted, especially had their been more time for discussions.

Death and Mourning

After the afternoon break, the final four papers of the conference addressed different dimensions of the emotive and ritual dimensions of mortuary practice.

Caroline van Toor (Groningen) considered Greek funerary epigrams as a source of information from Western Turkey, notably Ephesus, Miletus and Smyrna. Found particularly with males and with a slight bias towards adults, they offer a more personal engagement with mourning loved ones, including believes in catasterism (being turned into stars). I wondered whether this was the study of material evidence for past emotions, or stylised expressions of these emotions in the form of bereavement?

Lidewijde de Jong (Groningen) looked at Roman Syria (1st-3rd centuries AD) for evidence of funerary and afterlife beliefs. She questioned the singular interpretation of coins in graves as ‘Charon’s obol’, suggesting potentially varied practices and beliefs connected to coins in funerary contexts, including the value and potency of money as apotropaic devices. However, an equation with afterlife beliefs should be investigated, not assumed, she argued, and for grave-goods of all kinds a belief in afterlife destination provides a less conclusive interpretation than a clear concern for adorning and managing the integrity of the body in death. I wandered whether concepts of death pollution, inspired by a Hertzian model of death as transition, might help foster this approach.

Sylviane Déderix (Aix-Marseille Université) and Aurore Schmitt (Heidelberg) then presented a fascinating critique of the ideal of ‘double funerals’ (secondary burial) as prevalent in the tombs of Pre- and Protopalatial phases in Minoan Crete. Instead, looking at Zone 9 of the site of Sissi, deploying detailed examination of the ‘mass’ graves, they suggested that disturbed primary burial was the more plausible explanation in most instances. Rather than flipping the model and denying ‘double funerals’ completely, a diversity of practices are proposed to explain the evidence from different tombs. The knock-on social and ideological implications of this evidence needs further discussion.

Roosmarie Vlaskamp (Leiden) finished the session by looking at AD 300-1250 pre-Hispanic Nicaragua, focusing on the site of la Pachona. Her interest focused on theorising the integration of mortuary practices with the quotidian. The shifting significance of urn burials were considered in relation to everyday practices, and whether their occupants were ‘ancestor’s for particular social groups. Creating a broader theoretical framework to investigate the spatial and material interactions between the living and the dead through the medium of ceramics might be considered for this evidence.

Again, while addressing key debates in the study of mortuary processes and the treatment and transformation of the body, there was a shared lack of overt mortuary theory used in the interpretations.

In summary, the afternoon provided space for broader inferences regarding the relationship between mortuary practice, social structures and afterlife beliefs, yet was less satisfying in connecting case studies to recent key debates in mortuary archaeology relating to personhood, emotion and social memory. Still, overall this was a good conference, moving from scientific applications towards broader themes and investigations.