Secondary Burial and the Post-mortem Manipulation of the Dead

We here in the U.S. tend to think of death and burial as little as possible.  Someone dies, and we bury them.  Perhaps we visit the person's grave or other sacred space on occasion, but that's the extent of our interaction with the dead.  In other places and in other times, people weren't so squeamish about death and had a continuing relationship with the dead bodies of their compatriots.

Secondary burial is usually defined as anything other than putting a dead body in the ground/tomb and sealing it up (which is primary burial).  Cremation can count as secondary burial, as the dead body is manipulated (in this case by fire) and then disposed of.  But what's always been really interesting to me is the practice of post-mortem manipulation of the dead, the extended burial rituals that are generally held to indicate a sort of ancestor worship, for lack of a better term, or a way of honoring the dead and keeping them among the living.

Bronze Age mummy
(credit: BBC)
Monday's news brought word of prehistoric mummies from Scotland that show evidence of post-mortem manipulation.  Four bodies discovered in 2001 in the Outer Hebrides dating to the Bronze Age were deliberately mummified: an infant, a young female, a female in her 40s, and a male.  These sex and age estimations were based on the bones, but recent testing showed that one of the females (based on the pelvis) had a male skull and that the male mummy was also a composite of people.  Bioarchaeologists studied the bones further, and the extent of demineralization suggested the bodies were placed in a bog for about a year, then removed and manipulated, finally ending up in the flexed position we see in the photograph.  The BBC talked to Mike Parker Pearson, who literally wrote the book on the Archaeology of Death and Burial, who noted that "These could be kinship components, they are putting lineages together, the mixing up of different people's body parts seems to be a deliberate act."

deBry's engraving "The Tombe of their
Werovvans or Chieff Lordes" based on
Thomas Hariot's 1590 book on Algonkinans
in Virginia.  (Credit:
The secondary burials I've worked with are of Native Americans from the Late Woodland period (c. 800-1600 AD) in North Carolina (Killgrove 2002, 2009).  Among the Algonkians of the northern coastal plain, people of high social standing (called werowances in the ethnographic writing of the day) were typically skinned, cleaned, and stuffed to resemble a corpse, then placed on a wooden scaffold within a temple or tomb.  The common people were generally placed in ossuaries - large burials mounds - but archaeologists generally see a mix of primary and secondary burials in them (Ward & Davis 1999).  The Tuscarora occupied the inner coastal plain of North Carolina in the Late Woodland, and we have a detailed description of their burial ritual from John Lawson, the British Surveyor-General of North Carolina, at the turn of the 18th century.  One day after death, the body was wrapped in reeds.  Mourning took place over a few days' time.  Tuscarora village chiefs were then treated similarly to the Algonkian chiefs: being placed in a quiocosin, a mortuary or charnel house like the Algonkian one pictured.  Lawson also recorded the burial practices of the Siouan groups on the southern coastal plain of NC, in which the deceased was placed on a scaffold, the body was anointed and covered in bark, and eventually the flesh was removed and the bones were cleaned.  All the bones eventually made it to a quiozogon or ossuary-type burial mound.  Later, Siouan burial style switched to accretional ossuaries, with primary burials stacked up and covered with sand.

Skulls of the Toraja
(credit: National Geographic)
Post-mortem manipulation of the dead is an ancient practice but one that extends into the present day as well. In Indonesia, many anthropologists have studied the Toraja, a group that lives in the mountain region of the island of Sulawesi.  High-status individuals in this culture may not be buried until months or years after death, until a massive funeral can be held.  Eventually, when enough money has been raised, a large feast occurs and the dead is conveyed to the burial site in a specially-carved casket, interred in a cliffside grave, and represented by a statue.  In many cases, the dead are revisited after several years.  Their corpses are cleaned and dressed in new clothes, and the statues or effigies are also attended to.  In central Sulawesi, among the Pamona people, corpses are buried but later unearthed, with their flesh removed by ritual specialists.  The bones are wrapped in bark, put in baskets, and dressed and fed as if they were dolls (Hutchinson & Aragon 2002).  After a week of feasting, the jewelry, masks, and clothes are removed from the bone bundles, which are reinterred. National Geographic has several nice clips of Toraja mortuary ritual - such as here and here.  Another excellent movie is Borneo: Beyond the Grave with anthropologist Anne Schiller, formerly of NC State and now at GMU.  I've shown it in class before, but it's quite difficult to find (I think I got it as a bonus feature on NatGeo's Bali: Masterpiece of the Gods).

It's been quite a long time since the extended funeral was a part of American burial tradition - since we switched from displaying the bodies of loved ones in the parlor for a viewing and making memento mori photographs to a mechanized form of burial that distances us from the pollution of death (nicely critiqued in the first episode of HBO's Six Feet Under, when Nate refuses to use the sanitary dirt shaker on his father's grave, preferring to get his hands dirty).  And yet just as there is a movement in this country to bring birth back into the home, there is a movement to bring death back as well, as shown in A Family Undertaking, a 2004 PBS movie I showed one semester to my Bioarchaeology class.

Various cultures' continued relationships with the dead fascinate me and many other anthropologists, and it's important to remember that our own Western, Judeo-Christian views about death likely influence our interpretations of funerary practices around the world.  Learning about practices in other cultures, especially seeking out ethnographic parallels in contemporary funerary practice, will help bioarchaeologists interpret secondary burials and post-mortem manipulation of the dead.

UPDATE 9/19/11 - A new find in Stone Age central Sweden (roughly 6,000 BC) has revealed 11 individuals whose skulls had been mounted on stakes.  Archaeologists think it may have been battle-related but aren't ruling out secondary burial treatment.  Oddly, the site also boasts the world's oldest dildo.

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for
Hariot, T (1590).  A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia.  [Available at Documenting the American South.]

Hutchinson, D., & Aragon, L. (2002). Collective Burials and Community Memories: Interpreting the Placement of the Dead in the Southeastern and Mid-Atlantic United States with Reference to Ethnographic Cases from Indonesia Archeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association, 11 (1), 27-54 DOI: 10.1525/ap3a.2002.11.1.27

Killgrove, K (2009). Rethinking taxonomies: skeletal variation on the North Carolina coastal plain. Southeastern Archaeology, 28 (1), 87-100. [PDF]

Lawson, J (1709).  A New Voyage to Carolina.  [Available at Documenting the American South.]

Parker Pearson, M.  (2000)  The Archaeology of Death and Burial.  Texas A&M University Press.

Ward, HT & RPS Davis (1999).  Time Before History: the Archaeology of North Carolina.  University of North Carolina Press.

Further Reading:

Chesson, M, ed.  (2001)  Social Memory, Identity, and Death: Anthropological Perspectives on Mortuary Rituals.  Archeological Papers of the AAA.  [Library-restricted access here]

Rakita, G, JE Buikstra, LA Beck, SR Williams, eds. (2005)  Interacting with the Dead: Perspectives on Mortuary Archaeology for the New Millennium.  University Press of Florida. [Amazon] [Introduction via]

Silverman, H & D.B. Small, eds.  2002.  The Space and Place of Death.  Archeological Papers of the AAA. [Library-restricted access here]


Krystal D'Costa said…
One of the books I've read on the topic that has stayed with me is Alan Klima's Funeral Casino. In Thailand, it's apparently common to have a lavish and boisterous casino during the wake--people gamble under the open coffin. The money from the casino helps defray funerary costs and the family isn't alone during their period of mourning. The Thai aren't alone in less somber funerary observances, but I like this example precisely because I feel it runs counter to the expected Judeo-Christian response of somberness.

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