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The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Death and Burial

The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Death and Burial

By Sarah Tarlow and Liv Nilsson Stutz. Pp. xix + 846, figs. 115, tables 6. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2013. $185. ISBN 978-0-19-956906-9 (cloth).

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Although the dead have played a significant role in archaeology since the 19th century, it was not until the 1960s and 1970s that mortuary archaeology acquired its own identity as a distinct discipline.

This massive volume, which consists of 44 chapters written by leading international scholars in the field, attempts to outline the history of mortuary archaeology and its current theoretical and methodological approaches. It is a well-illustrated volume, with maps, plans, and photographs, and it contains a rich bibliography; I believe that it is ideally suited both for students and researchers.

In their introductory chapter, the editors set the theoretical framework of the volume:  they seek to combine up-to-date data with critical approaches to the archaeology of death. Additionally, they aim to draw attention to the complex ethical and political aspects of interpreting mortuary archaeology that have arisen in recent decades.

The first part of the volume deals with the history of archaeology and burial. Stout describes the development of mortuary archaeology in the United Kingdom until the 20th century. Richard, on the occasion of the discovery of the Cro-Magnon burials and those at the Balzi Rossi caves in Italy, presents the controversies that have arisen regarding prehistoric burials in France during the second half of the 19th century. Next, Chapman and Kus provide a comprehensive discussion of the role of mortuary archaeology in processual and postprocessual archaeology.

The second part presents the scientific methods and techniques related to the study of human bones. Roberts explores the contribution of bioarchaeology through macroscopic recording, destructive techniques, and biomolecular analyses to the understanding of health problems and nutrition and diet in the past. Bramanti presents the new methodologies in ancient DNA studies, and Eriksson explains how information from stable isotope analysis can be combined with the traditional archaeological data. McKinley’s contribution pertains to the ancient rite of cremation, while Ekengren attempts a theoretical and methodological approach to the study of grave goods.

In the third part of the volume, the human experience of death across different cultural contexts is the common theme. Williams, using case studies from the mid to late first millennium C.E. in Britain and Scandinavia, suggests that grave goods placed with cremated human remains were meant to transform and reconstitute the identities of the dead in post-cremation rituals. Weiss-Krejci explores the varying responses the unburied dead evoke in living people and how these are detectable by archaeologists. Edwards, through a brief review of mortuary archaeology of the middle Nile region, examines the rituals concerning death from the Mesolithic period to the Islamic conquest. Fogelin and Petersen respectively present Buddhist and Islamic burial practices, while O’Sullivan explores the Christian traditions of burial archaeology in Late Medieval Europe.

Several chapters explore prehistoric mortuary rituals in Europe, within a cosmological, social, and symbolic context. Riel-Salvatore and Gravel, after a reexamination of 85 Upper Paleolithic burials, conclude that the few known ornate burials in Russia, Italy, and the Czech Republic should not be used to characterize the burial practices as a whole. Hovers and Belfer-Cohen review the evidence of mortuary behaviors in Middle Paleolithic Eurasia and Middle Stone Age Africa. Conneller presents Mesolithic mortuary practices in Europe. After a critical discussion of theories about the social complexity of hunter-gatherer communities, which is usually connected to the appearance of cemeteries and associated grave goods, she presents alternative views about the nature of power and society in Mesolithic Europe. Similar are Chapman’s concerns about the theoretical approaches that have been adopted to interpret the ritual burial practices of later prehistoric societies in the Iberian peninsula by using the concepts of power, prestige, and status. According to Midgley, the architecture and the placement of megalithic monuments in northwest Europe “were tangible expression” (436) of the social, cultural, and cosmological principles that constituted the multidimensional world of the Neolithic farmers.

Robb, after his initial claim that “we have never had an archaeology of death…but just an archaeology of a dead person” (441), tries to construct an archaeology of dying. Abolishing boundaries between osteology and taphonomy, he treats death as a social process in which dying persons and all the people around them are engaged in a continuous interrelationship.

The body is the focal point of the next contributions. Gramsch explores the symbolic and social dimensions of the dead body. Giles discusses bodies that are well-preserved, accidentally or deliberately, from different environments and the implications, both ethical and emotional, that they evoke. Oestigaard explores the cultural and cosmological dimensions of cremation, while Fowler analyzes the interaction between identity and mortuary practices. Tarlow approaches the ways that ancient beliefs affect the disposal of the dead body. Kaulicke outlines the organization of Inca power via “ancestrality” (402), which is detectable both in the early written sources and in archaeological remains of the Cuzco area. Yao, having as a guide the mortuary practices, detects the gender hierarchies in ancient China. Finally, Hill explores the emotions concerning death and burial as they are detected in burial practices of the late Moche period in the north coast area of Peru.

Sofaer and Stig-Sørensen’s contribution is essentially an introduction to the archaeology of gender. After a brief review of the theoretical approaches of gender within mortuary archaeology, they explore various methods that can be used to locate and investigate gender within burial contexts. Shepherd considers, through a different perspective, ancient Greek burial practices from the Geometric to the Hellenistic period. Using the main three social identities (i.e., age, gender, and ethnicity) as interpretative tools, he tries to explain the formulation of burial systems in the ancient Greek world. Carroll explores the aspects of identity relating to ethnicity and gender in Roman funerary monuments erected along the northern border of the Roman empire. Näser, through a tentative analysis of burials from New Kingdom Thebes, leaves behind the conventional approaches of Egyptian funerary practices to provide a “mundane,” quotidian aspect of death.

The final part of the book consists of eight chapters that present a different point of view of mortuary archaeology through a modern philosophical aspect. These concern the ethical and political dimensions of death and consequently speak to the future direction of the discipline. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, human remains of indigenous groups from Australia and North America were used for the purpose of studying racial differences. Many descendants of these groups, during the last decades, openly opposed this disturbance of the dead and turned against archaeologists. Watkins, Fforde, and Pardoe discuss this antagonism between local communities and archaeologists and the large-scale repatriation and reburial programs in North America and Australia. But as Nilsson Stutz points out, “the archaeology cannot back off completely from the engaging with burials only because they are emotionally and politically engaged” (811).

Finally, Kersel and Chesson tackle the controversial issue of looting, presenting all the methodological, theoretical, and ethical matters that archaeologists face with intensive illegal excavation.

According to the editors, “it is not possible, even in a handbook of this length to be comprehensive” (10). However, reading the entire content of the volume, one feels that a wide range of time periods has been covered (the Paleolithic to the 20th century), as well as geographical areas, which include Europe, North and South America, Africa, and Asia. In fact, it provides a global view of death. In conclusion, Richard’s remark that “those who practice archaeology of death have to deal not only with the beliefs of the past and the beliefs of modern locals, but also with their own beliefs” (43) should be the basic concern for all archaeologists involved in mortuary archaeology.

Konstantina Chavela
36th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities

Book Review of The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Death and Burial, by Sarah Tarlow and Liv Nilsson Stutz

Reviewed by Konstantina Chavela

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 119, No. 2 (April 2015)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1192.Chavela

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