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  • Print publication year: 2013
  • Online publication date: February 2013

9 - Ritual Topographies: Burials and Social Identity


Burials and Burial Practice

Mortuary contexts provide some of the best archaeological data for establishing patterns of past social interaction. They offer a window into those aspects of individual and group identity that were most salient in the minds of the members of a community. How archaeologists should go about interpreting burial patterns has, consequently, been an important issue for decades. In studies of mortuary remains, the degree of burial elaboration has long been thought to be a relatively direct means of understanding social structure and stratification. This perspective was most forcefully advocated in the 1970s following the seminal work of Arthur Saxe (1970). Saxe's ethnographic work concluded that mortuary patterns reflect consciously selected social distinctions that were important to the associated living society. Direct interpretation of these patterns was subsequently developed by other processual archaeologists (Binford 1971; Brown 1981, 1995; Tainter 1978; O’Shea 1984) and remains an influential strain of burial archaeology.

Despite the optimism of this direct approach, scholars have long recognized that “the activities and statuses of the mourners” (Peebles 1971: 68) were more critical to the patterns observed in burial contexts than were the relationships among the deceased (Humphreys 1981; Metcalf and Huntington 1991; Ucko 1969). Archaeologists who wrestle with this aspect of burial patterns see death as a ritual process that must be understood in its cultural context and burials as one small, albeit important, aspect of elaborate ritual ceremonies (Flad 1998, 2002; Kuijt 1996; Morris 1987, 1992; Nilsson Stutz 2003, 2008; Pader 1982). Burial rituals are not only (or necessarily) occasions to reify existing social distinctions but may also be contexts in which living individuals assert identity in the face of broader social practices. “Mortuary ritual provides a setting in which individuals recreate, manipulate, negotiate, and use existing schemes of funeral practice for different ends” (Flad 2002: 30).