Remembering the Dead in the Ancient Near East: Recent Contributions from Bioarchaeology and Mortuary Archaeology
Remembering the Dead in the Ancient Near East: Recent Contributions from Bioarchaeology and Mortuary Archaeology

Remembering the Dead in the Ancient Near East: Recent Contributions from Bioarchaeology and Mortuary Archaeology

by Benjamin W. Porter, Alexis T. Boutin

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Remembering the Dead in the Ancient Near East: Recent Contributions from Bioarchaeology and Mortuary Archaeology by Benjamin W. Porter

Remembering the Dead in the Ancient Near East is among the first comprehensive treatments to present the diverse ways in which ancient Near Eastern civilizations memorialized and honored their dead, using mortuary rituals, human skeletal remains, and embodied identities as a window into the memory work of past societies.

In six case studies, teams of researchers with different skillsets—osteological analysis, faunal analysis, culture history and the analysis of written texts, and artifact analysis—integrate mortuary analysis with bioarchaeological techniques. Drawing upon different kinds of data, including human remains, ceramics, jewelry, spatial analysis, and faunal remains found in burial sites from across the region’s societies, the authors paint a robust and complex picture of death in the ancient Near East.

Demonstrating the still underexplored potential of bioarchaeological analysis in ancient societies, Remembering the Dead in the Ancient Near East serves as a model for using multiple lines of evidence to reconstruct commemoration practices. It will be of great interest to students and scholars of ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian societies, the archaeology of death and burial, bioarchaeology, and human skeletal biology.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781607323259
Publisher: University Press of Colorado
Publication date: 10/15/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
File size: 12 MB
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About the Author

Benjamin W. Porter is assistant professor of Near Eastern archaeology in the University of California, Berkeley’s Near Eastern Studies Department and a curator of Near Eastern archaeology at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology. He is a co-director of the Dhiban Excavation and Development Project and the Dilmun Bioarchaeology Project and the author of Complex Communities: The Archaeology of Early Iron Age West-Central Jordan. Alexis T. Boutin is associate professor of anthropology and coordinator of the Cultural Resources Management MA program at Sonoma State University. She is co-director of the Dilmun Bioarchaeology Project and recently completed work on the Tell en-Nasbeh Bioarchaeology Project. She is a co-editor of Breathing New Life into the Evidence of Death: Contemporary Approaches to Bioarchaeology

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Remembering the Dead in the Ancient East

Recent Contributions from Bioarchaeology and Mortuary Archaeology

By Benjamin W. Porter, Alexis T. Boutin

University Press of Colorado

Copyright © 2014 University Press of Colorado
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60732-528-4



Bringing Out the Dead in the Ancient Near East

* * *


Intentional burial — a characteristically human behavior that first occurred nearly 100,000 years ago in the Middle East — is one of the most fundamental acts of commemoration. Although some people who lived in ancient Near Eastern societies clearly planned for their funerary treatment prior to their death (e.g., the Egyptian Old Kingdom pyramids at Giza), burial practices were largely decided by the living: how to prepare the body for interment; how to position the body in the burial chamber; what objects to include with the deceased; what ritual acts to perform days, weeks, or even years later. Given the diversity of ancient Near Eastern societies over so many millennia, the Middle East boasts a rich archive in which to investigate how people made deliberate choices to remember and commemorate the dead. And yet for all of the bodies that have been exhumed since Near Eastern archaeology began in the mid-nineteenth century, comprehensive treatments of mortuary contexts are rarely published. Mortuary rituals, the identities of the deceased, or beliefs about the afterlife consequently are interpreted using a single data set — the assemblage with which a person was buried, for instance, or the person's osteological profile, or written commentaries about the deceased. In doing so, scholars paint only part of a much more complex picture of death in the ancient Near East. The dearth of holistic studies integrating these data sets is odd given the sustained scholarly interest in ancient Near Eastern societies' perceptions of death and beliefs about the afterlife (e.g., Baker 2012; Campbell and Green 1995; Kramer 1967; Laneri 2007; Schmidt 1994). This book is a response to the irregular nature in which ancient Near Eastern mortuary contexts have been studied in the past. The chapters that follow use evidence from across the region's societies — from Neolithic Turkey to Bronze Age Jordan, from ancient Egypt and Sudan to the Arabian Gulf and Mesopotamia. In each, authors bring at least two different, yet complementary, analytical techniques together to investigate how ancient Near Eastern societies remembered and commemorated the dead. While no chapter offers a perfect vision of collaboration, many demonstrate how teams of researchers with different skillsets — osteological analysis, faunal analysis, culture history and the analysis of written texts, and artifact analysis — offer ways to interpret ancient Near Eastern mortuary contexts in a richer and more robust light.

This chapter prepares readers for the studies to follow, introducing key issues surrounding the investigation of death, memory, and commemoration in ancient Near Eastern mortuary contexts. The chapter begins with a brief survey of the segmented roles that mortuary archaeologists, osteologists, bioarchaeologists, and cultural historians have played in analyses. When these disciplinary genealogies are placed side by side, a clearer vision for intersecting interests and moments of collaboration becomes apparent. The discussion then examines how recent scholarship on social memory in the humanities and social sciences provides a framework for investigating practices of remembering and commemorating the dead in ancient Near Eastern societies. Mortuary contexts, structured depositions shaped by both conscious and unconscious intentions, are sites of memory and are the result of memory work. Different modes of mortuary analysis can shed light on aspects of memory work, whether it is osteological data that can reconstruct the osteobiography of the interred person, the material cultural analysis of objects, or historians and epigraphers building a cultural context around the interment event. This chapter concludes with an overview of the different chapters in this book, illustrating how each speaks to issues raised in broader discussions.

Investigating Mortuary Contexts in Ancient Near Eastern Societies

Mortuary Archaeology

The skewed emphases in the analysis of ancient Near Eastern mortuary contexts are explained by the fact that investigations have developed along distinct disciplinary trajectories that worked in relative isolation from each other. The most dominant trajectory has been mortuary archaeology, whose principal focus has concerned materials associated with the deceased, such as the objects interred with the body or the architectural design of tombs. A glance at the contents of many excavation reports reflects mortuary archaeology's dominance. Each volume will invariably include an individual chapter, often entitled "The Burials," placed alongside other sections on architecture, ceramics, and chronology. Although human skeletal remains may be described in terms of their preservation and deposition in such chapters, the results of osteological analyses often appear in separate chapters, if at all (see below), with no attempt to integrate data and context. The mortuary assemblage receives the bulk of writers' attention for several good reasons. The objects' locations in a sealed context can help to establish chronological sequences (Duday 2006: 37), and, because whole or nearly whole objects are commonly recovered in mortuary contexts, they are valuable assets in designing artifact corpora; these same objects are also ideal specimens for museum displays (Woolley 1937: 81). For more than a century of research, these descriptive reports of human burials have comprised the majority of research on mortuary practices in the ancient Near East (e.g., Delougaz, Hill, and Lloyd 1967; Goffinet 1982; Jean-Marie 1999; Maeir 2004; Thrane 1978; Woolley 1934).

While basic documentation of mortuary contexts remains prevalent, thematic studies — often diachronic and broad in their geographic coverage — have grown more abundant in recent decades. The most common topics use mortuary assemblages to demarcate geographic zones of shared cultural and religious identities (e.g., Bienkowski 1982; Carter and PParke 1995; Gonen 1992) or observe changes in long-term mortuary practices that, in turn, reflect changes in social and political complexity (e.g., Joffe 2003; Keswani 2004; Richards 2005). Mortuary practices also have been regarded as key to understanding ancient Near Eastern symbolic systems and religious beliefs, with ancestor veneration a popular topic of inquiry (Mabry 2003; Pf älzner et al. 2012; Pitard 1996; Salles 1995; Schmidt 1994, 1996; van der Toorn 1994, 1996). Recently, scholars have interpreted elite funerary rituals in the ancient Near East, especially their conspicuous consumption of material wealth (e.g., construction of substantial architecture, disposal of rich and rare grave goods), as acts of memorialization that create and reinforce political authority, in particular by drawing on ancestor ideologies (Matthiae 1979; Morris 2007; Peltenburg 1999; Pollock 2007; Porter 2002; Schwartz 2007). Burials of children (Kulemann-Ossen and Novák 2000), and certain types of grave goods, such as figurines (Marchetti 2000; Pruss and Novák 2000) and weapons (Rehm 2003), have been considered as social or religious symbols. Mortuary archaeology also has been inspired by third-wave feminism and its emphasis on human difference. These approaches explore how one or more facets in the reflecting and refracting prism of social identity — encompassing age, kinship, sex, gender, sexuality, agency, and so on — are reproduced through mortuary practices; however, they remain rare in scholarship on the ancient Near East (e.g., Baker 2012; Croucher 2005).

In the chapters that follow, authors include mortuary assemblages and architecture in their analyses, albeit in different ways and at different intensities. Almost all authorial teams use objects and architecture to supply relative dates, or confirm absolute dates, for interment events. And almost all authors explicitly or implicitly consider objects as "gifts" that the living gave to deceased persons to bring with them into the afterlife. Although this is a common assumption about the role objects play in ancient Near Eastern mortuary rituals, objects likely possessed multiple functions and meanings. While the editors did not plan this arrangement, most mortuary contexts analyzed in this volume may be classified as "vernacular," or nonelite. This is a refreshing change from projects in the region that favor elite contexts, such as the Royal Tombs of Ur, that have received steady attention since their discovery (e.g., Baadsgaard 2011; Cohen 2005; Keith 1934; Molleson and Hodgson 2003; Pollock 2007; Woolley 1934). Yet, consequently, such nonelite contexts often lack the abundant grave goods and elaborate architectural designs that offer themselves up for interpretations. The chapters in this volume nevertheless find much to interpret in even the smallest object and most ordinary structures, finding them to be humble yet evocative acts that the living could muster to commemorate the dead.

Skeletal and Dental Evidence

The second mode of mortuary analysis is osteology, a field that uses methods from the biological sciences to study human remains. The study of the human body in the ancient Near East traditionally has focused on it as an "objectified entity in physical or biological studies" or viewed its treatment in death as representative of social structures or symbolic systems (Boyd 2002:137). Detailed studies of the osteology of ancient Near Eastern populations have been conducted for much of the time that modern scholars have explored the region (e.g., Buxton and Rice 1931; Charles 1962; Charlier 2000; Keith 1934; Krogman 1949; Kunter 1984). Skeletal data prioritized by these studies include age, sex, metrics (cranial, postcranial, and dental), nonmetric traits, cranial morphology and associated "racial" types, and ad hoc observations (rather than systematic analysis) of paleopathology. As mentioned earlier, osteological data from burials often appear incidentally in excavation reports, or are conspicuously absent. When reports do appear, they are usually appended to, or published separately from, excavation reports discussing the mortuary contexts from which the data were collected. This disconnect between data and context is even apparent in projects whose research designs ostensibly seek such integration (e.g., Hodder 2005; cf. Buikstra, Baadsgaard, and Boutin 2011:11).

Scholars of the ancient Near East are not alone in their inability to integrate mortuary analyses, theoretical developments in archaeology, and interpretations of human skeletal remains (Goldstein 2006). Fortunately, the introduction of bioarchaeological praxis has begun to ameliorate this blind spot through a holistic integration of archaeological and osteological data from ancient Near Eastern mortuary contexts (notably, Perry 2012). Several disciplinary histories of bioarchaeology's origins and research orientations have been published recently (Agarwal and Glencross 2011a; Armelagos 2003; Buikstra and Beck 2006; Buikstra, Baadsgaard, and Boutin 2011) and need not be repeated here. Although the populations and time periods studied are wide ranging and diverse, three primary perspectives have shaped bioarchaeologists' research agendas. The "biocultural" approach to bioarchaeology explores "the effects of localized, proximate conditions on human biologies and the linkage between these contexts and larger historical political-economic processes" (Zuckerman and Armelagos 2011:20). Its investigative scale varies from exploring longer-term adaptive trends (Goodman and Leatherman 1998) to the lived experiences of communities and individuals (Agarwal and Glencross 2011b; Blakey 2001; Sheridan 1999). Clark Spencer Larsen (1997, 2002) defines bioarchaeology as use of the human biological component of the archaeological record to make behavioral inferences that shed light on the history of the human condition. Research by him and other like-minded scholars has produced wide-ranging studies that explore patterns of disease, diet, activity, and demography, among other topics, from a population perspective (e.g., Larsen 2001; Steckel and Rose 2002; Tung 2012; Walker 2001).

The approach taken in this volume, however, follows the method and theory championed by Jane Buikstra (2006), which emphasizes the contextual analysis of human remains from archaeological settings via multiple lines of evidence (iconographic, textual, and ethnographic data in addition to archaeology and osteology). Contemporary social theory is employed to reconstruct human life histories and population structures (e.g., Baadsgaard, Boutin, and Buikstra 2011; Knudson and Stojanowski 2009; Stodder and Palkovich 2012). Accordingly, in the current volume, perspectives from disability studies (Boutin and Porter), postcolonial theory (Smith and Buzon), and the politics of ethnic identity (Pestle, Torres-Rouff, and Daverman) are deployed in support of holistic interpretations of data from mortuary contexts.

Several trends are evident when tracking bioarchaeological research on the ancient Near East. In addition to exploring how memory and commemoration are expressed in funerary practices, each chapter in this volume also engages with these broader areas of inquiry. Human skeletal remains have been a rich data source for correlating health and diet with changes in sociopolitical organization. The introduction of new technologies and methods of food preparation at key moments of growth in social complexity has been inferred from skeletal markers of occupational stress (Molleson 1994) and dental microwear (Alrousan and Pérez-Pérez 2012; Molleson, Jones, and Jones 1993). Long-term, regional changes in subsistence strategy also have been explored via dental pathology alone (Littleton and Frohlich 1989, 1993) and in combination with a variety of skeletal indicators of stress, trauma, and infection (Blau 2007; Littleton 2007; Smith and Horwitz 2007). In the current volume, Campbell and coauthors provide evidence for large-scale feasting and its ties to place- and memory-making, while Smith and Buzon analyze dietarily derived stable isotopes in their investigation of migration during colonial encounters.

The human skeleton also has been used to reveal social differentiation along many axes of identity in ancient Near Eastern societies. The ways that gender intersects with status, behavior, and ancestordom has been studied by means of artificial cranial modification (Lorentz 2008), skeletal markers of occupational stress (Peterson 2002, 2010), bone quantity and quality (Glencross and Agarwal 2011), and postmortem skull decoration (Bonogofsky 2003). Social interpretations of chronological aging and biological maturation across the life course are another growing area of interest, with a particular focus on childhood as embodied by health (Littleton 2011), social roles (Perry 2005), and mortuary treatment (Torres-Rouff and Pestle 2012). Biochemical evidence from bones and teeth has been a productive source for investigating transitional moments such as weaning (Dupras, Schwarcz, and Fairgrieve 2001; Gregoricka and Sheridan 2012; Richards et al. 2003). In the current volume, mortuary and osteological evidence are brought together by Dabbs and Zabecki to explore differences in socioeconomic status in New Kingdom Egypt, while Pestle and coauthors focus on ethnic affiliation at Kish during a period of transition from Sumerian to Akkadian rule.

The issue of analytical scale in bioarchaeology has undergone interrogation lately in an ancient Near Eastern context (Pollock 2011). Many of the studies just reviewed approach assemblages of human skeletal remains in a systematic, yet broad, fashion to produce population-level profiles of characteristics such as age, sex, health, and occupational stress. Such research also can shed new light on how kinship units, whether biological or fictive, were organized (Bentley 1991; Pilloud and Larsen 2011). Finer-grained analyses of individual persons, sometimes termed "osteobiographies" (after Saul and Saul 1989), represent a more recent development (Boutin 2011, 2012; Martin and Potts 2012; Molleson and Hodgson 1993, 2003; Özbek 2005). In the current volume, Boutin and Porter juxtapose the biographies of ancient and modern individuals, and Sheridan and coauthors present skeletal evidence for family and lineage affiliation.


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Table of Contents

Cover Contents Tables Acknowledgments 1. Introduction: Bringing Out the Dead in the Ancient Near East 2. Burying Things 3. Strange People and Exotic Things 4. Commemorating Disability in Early Dilmun 5. Bioarchaeological Reconstruction of Group Identity at Early Bronze Age Bab edh-Dhra‘, Jordan 6. Identity, Commemoration, and Remembrance in Colonial Encounters 7. Abandoned Memories Contributors Index

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