On Archaeodeath, I’m interested in cremation in the human past – the topic of my 2000 doctoral thesis and a host of follow up articles and book chapters as well as a 2017 co-edited collection Cremation and the Archaeology of Death. Yet, I’m also interested in cremation in fiction, including science fiction. Exploring these fictional worlds is a form of mortuary archaeology in itself, and the subfield of the public archaeology of death (or public mortuary archaeology) too because it is a prime medium for engaging a host of global audiences in the study of mortality in the human past and the present day.
Having reviewed the archaeology of The Mandalorian, I extend my discussion of the Star Wars universe by discussing now the archaeology in The Book of Boba Fett. This is an eight-part series, partly extends the exploits of Grogu and Din Djarin but also picks up the story of the bounty hunter Boba Fett. First, we see Bob’s backstory from when he fell into the Sarlacc Pit on Tatooine after battling Han Solo, Chewbacca and Luke Skywalker in The Return of the Jedi. From here, we follow his backstory as he escapes from the belly of the beast, is robbed of his armour by jawas, and captured by Tusken raiders. This backstory is told via Boba’s dreams up to him encountering Fennec Shand and saving her and regaining his ship. Then, we follow Boba’s adventures with Fennec upon their return to Tatooine to take over Jabba the Hutt’s crimelord/ (‘daimyo’) status as ruler of Mos Espa. Fett and Shand first combatt more Hutts who claim his title and then the spice trafficking Pyke Syndicate towards a series conclusion shoot out on the streets of Mos Espa.
The landscapes, architectures and material cultures of Tatooine and Jabba’s palace are expanded considerably in this series, building on the original Star Wars films and The Mandalorian. Therefore, there are many potential themes for archaeological exploration. In particular, there are more Western scenes following in the style of The Mandalorian. Yet, I wish to focus in particular on the mortuary practices. For while The Mandalorian contains only a single grave and no funeral conducted over it, that of Kuill’s grave, we get two funerary scenes in The Book of Boba Fett.
Boba Fett has been made captive by the Tuskens but saves his juvenile captive and slowly becomes part of the tribe. In Chapter 2 – The Tribes of Tatooine – The Pyke repulser train crosses the Dune Sea and they indiscriminately shoot dead four Tuskens and one bantha. As part of his participation and initiation into the Tusken clan, Boba finds himself involved in the obsequies for the four Tuskens. The ceremony is sombre, without song or music, and seemingly quite cursory. Yet, the evocative, quiet and formal night time funeral of the four men is a striking instance of cremation on a fictional universe in 21st-century popular culture.
No preparations for the funeral are shown, simply the construction of a small bonfire from small pieces of wood gathered from who knows where. Boba carries one of the Tusken corpses, seemingly without preparation (washing, redressing or other rituals) towards the pyre. As he approaches, two Tuskens take the body from him and add it to the flames where existing corpses already lie. The gaffi sticks of the warriors join them to burn. No explain or discussion takes place.
This scene is powerful and transformative – Bobe learns to care and respect the Tuskens, and we learn of these nomadic desert-dwellers’ traditions and customs. Yet he is liminal – not fully a part of their community and serving a respectful supportive and secondary role in the funeral: he is still learning to be Tusken.
Subsequently, fire plays another transformative role as Boba, having learned their martial ways, is initiated, dancing around a fire. Fire transforms the living and the dead among these desert dwellers.
In Chapter 3 – The Streets of Mos Espa – we return to another mass-cremation among the Tuskens in the backstory of Boba Fett. This time the character and larger scale reflect different circumstances. Boba returns to the Tusken camp having sought negotiations with the Pyke Syndicate only to find everyone massacred, their corpses strewn across the camp. He gathers the dead and follows their perfunctory yet powerful rituals. Like the Last Survivor in the poem Beowulf, Boba mourns everyone lost and in isolation performs the labour if not the rituals of those who had adopted him as one of their own. Saying farewell to the Tuskens, Boba has been saved and learned to respect them, even if his actions in part led to their downfall. In some ways, by affording the last rites to the entire Tusken community, he becomes Tusken as he says farewell to their mortal remains. Again, a well choreographed story in the journey of Boba from bounty hunter to his new, more complex role as hero as he turns to seeing out his ship and then his lost Mandalorian armour.
Now, the desert burning of the dead is at one level utterly impractical. Where is the fuel from? They don’t stack it in a fashion so as to effectively cremate the dead, especially bodies tightly wrapped in multiple layers of clothing as is the Tuskens’ habit. Of course, we can evoke incendiary devices and we can concoct a story that the gaffi sticks are super-heating when added to pyres, or that the Tuskens are themselves highly flammable in death given that they are desiccated denizens of the desert. But these funerals are simply not logical or effective in real-world terms and what we know about open-air cremation across the human past and from world ethnographies. Indeed, I suspect the principal visual cue for this portrayal comes from within the Star Wars universe. For while jedi are cremated in the Star Wars films, it is the modest and equally implausible cremation of the bodies of jawas in A New Hope by Obi-wan Kenobi that bears closest similarity to what the Tuskens do by burning the dead on Tatooine.
At another level, this is an important popular culture reference to open-air cremation, showing respect to a nomadic community and their death ways, with parallels across the globe in the human past and present. As one of the most prominent representations of open-air cremation among indigenous peoples in a fictional context, this has important ramifications for the popular culture perception of death and fire, past and present.