Variability of Mortuary Practice in MPPNB – Two Papers @ Current Anthropology

Although I haven’t as yet been able to write up the latest origins of agriculture papers in the October 2009 edition of Current Anthropology, there are a couple of papers in earlier editions of the same publication that I want to quickly mention here, as they both deal with contemporaryregen kuijt CA april 08 burial and re-burial practices in the Middle Pre-Pottery Neolithic B, (roughly 10,500 – 8,500 bp) and which may have direct implications for the way in which these early agriculturalists viewed the world around them, and how such behaviours may have developed over the course of centuries and millennia, both locally and farther afield.

For the purposes of this post I’m going to reproduce the abstracts of each paper, and add a brief note or two thereafter – the first of which concerns the sites of Jericho, ‘Ain Ghazal, Yiftahel, Kfar HaHoresh, Ghwair I, Nahal Hemar, Munhata, Tell Aswad, Wadi Shu’eib, and Beidha, and is titled ‘The Regeneration of Life – Neolithic Structures of Symbolic Remembering and Forgetting’, by Ian Kuijt, 2009 – he is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame.

The social construction of identity and memory can be expressed through public ritual. The organization of mortuary practices, the repetitive use of imagery and figurines, and the long‐term reuse of human skulls in the Near Eastern Neolithic illustrate how household ritual linked the living to the dead. Secondary mortuary practices and the plastering and painting of human skulls as ritual heirlooms served as a form of memorialization and erasure of identity within communities. The deliberate focus on the face in both construction and decoration was part of a shared system of ritual practices.

Skull caching and modification transcended the past, present, and future, reiterating the expectation of future mortuary events while simultaneously recognizing continuity with the past through the crafting of memory. Collectively these patterns represent a complex web of interaction involving ritual knowledge, imagery, mortuary practices, and the creation of intergenerational memory and structures of authority.

This is a well written and thought provoking paper, greatly enhanced by the ensuing informed discussion and comments from various others within academia, Julien Riel-Salvatore included – indeed it is he who points out the ostensible similarities displayed by Neanderthals towards some of their dead, with particular regard to skull and tooth caching. Once again, we need to be very careful in ascribing or defining types of putative archaism or modernity to humans separated from each other by tens of thousands of years.

Next up we have Seated Memory: New Insights into Near Eastern Neolithic Mortuary Variability from Tell Halula, Syria, by Emma Guerrero et al, also of Notre Dame, Indiana, and for which this is the abstract:

Despite a long history of field research in the Neolithic of the Near East, archaeologists have a remarkably poor understanding of the degree of variation in mortuary practices within and between major Neolithic settlements. Such an understanding is critical for reconstructing the social, economic, and ritual interconnections between people in villages and, by extension, how researchers model social organization in early agricultural villages. Mortuary data from Middle Pre‐Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB) components of Tell Halula, a large Neolithic village in the middle valley of the Euphrates River, Syria, illustrate how household members buried their dead in standardized ways.

These practices included burial of individuals only inside of buildings, in only one area of the main room, in single graves, and always in a fully upright, seated position. Houses were rebuilt in the same location, and rebuilding was always designed so that new houses had space for new burials. These residential buildings served as active spaces of life and death during the Pre‐Pottery Neolithic at Tell Halula. Viewed collectively, the mortuary practices of Tell Halula are remarkably different from those of other contemporaneous Neolithic villages and challenge researchers to both document regional variation in shared cultural practices and model the social processes that contributed to shared regional practices and, simultaneously, to variation in how specific practices were enacted as events.

Another well-written and illustrated paper, which like the previous one mentioned above, touches on just how varied burial and post-mortem practices could be, as well as cautioning against generalised conclusions which state all such behaviours were simply revering the ancestors. There are many other considerations to take on board, and the discussion of why skulls and buildings were plastered and re-plastered, how internal space was defined and used, as well as how the commonality of experience and perception of past present and future at the communal level might have affected the individual, whether dead or alive.

I’ll return to these papers in due course – and although I generally prefer to discuss papers to which everyone has free access, on this occasion you’ll need a subscription to Current Anthropology in order to read these two in full – unless of course you know of someone who might be able to forward you copies – (hint hint).

image from Kuijt: Sequence of mortuary practices at ‘Ain Ghazal


1.The Regeneration of Life: Neolithic Structures of Symbolic Remembering and Forgetting – Ian Kuijt

Current Anthropology 2008 49:2, 171-197

2. Seated Memory: New Insights into Near Eastern Neolithic Mortuary Variability from Tell Halula, Syria – Emma Guerrero,  Miquel Molist,  Ian Kuijt, and  Josep Anfruns

Current Anthropology Volume 50, Number 3, June 2009 © 2009 by The Wenner‐Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. All rights reserved. 0011-3204/2009/5003-0005$10.00 DOI: 10.1086/598211

Comments are closed.

A Website.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: