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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

Edited by Benjamin W. Porter and Alexis T. Boutin. Pp. xviii + 261, figs. 36, tables 14. University Press of Colorado, Boulder 2014. $70. ISBN 978-1-60732-324-2 (cloth).

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Traditional archaeological studies of mortuary contexts in the ancient Near East have tended to split along disciplinary divides, as publications often focus on either burial customs and material culture or the scientific study of biological material (e.g., S. Campbell and A. Green, eds., The Archaeology of Death in the Ancient Near East [Oxbow 1995]). This sharp delineation has faded over the past decade partly because of the publication of works such as Bioarchaeology and Behavior: The People of the Ancient Near East (M.A. Perry, ed. [Gainesville, Fla. 2012]) and the open access journal Bioarchaeology of the Near East (2007–present). Building on these previous studies, the interdisciplinary essays in Porter and Boutin’s edited volume use varied approaches and multiple lines of evidence to substantially contribute to our understanding of commemorative funerary practices in the ancient Near East.

The book presents a series of six case studies in which teams composed of specialists in material culture, human osteology, zooarchaeology, cultural history, and textual analysis examine acts of commemoration in the ancient Near East. In terms of geography and chronology, the editors adopt a broad definition of the ancient Near East that includes not only Mesopotamia but also the territory of the modern Middle East (including Egypt and Sudan) and spans from the Paleolithic era to the late first millennium B.C.E. (14). Nevertheless, the essays focus on funerary assemblages from Turkey, Iraq, Bahrain, Jordan, and Egypt that mostly date (with the exception of chs. 2 and 6) to the Bronze Age, specifically to the third and second millennia B.C.E.

In their introductory essay (ch. 1), Porter and Boutin discuss the state of the field of mortuary studies in the ancient Near East, providing the reader with pertinent background for the chapters that follow. They begin with a brief survey of the individual roles that scholars from various disciplines have played in previous analyses of mortuary contexts. Then they offer an abbreviated historiography of social memory. The chapter concludes with summaries of the groundbreaking case studies presented in this volume.

Campbell, Kansa, Bichener, and Lau (ch. 2) propose a reconsideration of our traditional conceptualization of ritualized burial. At Domuztepe, a Late Neolithic site (ca. first half of the sixth millennium B.C.E.) in southeastern Turkey, humans, animals, and objects, such as dining implements, were deposited in a deliberate and structured manner. Although formal burial is often reserved for humans, in this society it appears to have extended to nonhumans as well. As a result, the authors eschew the popular understanding of “burial” and suggest that it is instead a complex transformative process that acts on culturally significant and socially charged material (e.g., humans, animals, objects) for the purpose of changing the material’s relationship with the world.

In chapter 3, Pestle, Torres-Rouf, and Daverman explore ethnic differences among Sumerians and Akkadians during the tumultuous period of the Akkadian imperial ascendancy (ca. 2350–2150 B.C.E.). In their study of burials from “Cemetery” A at Kish in southern Iraq, the authors examine nonmetric traits (minor skeletal and dental variants that are used to determine “relatedness” among population groups) and mortuary treatments (e.g., grave type, body position, number and type of grave goods) to determine whether there were any discernible distinctions between the two groups. Although biological and grave goods evidence points to the presence of Akkadian individuals in the cemetery, burial treatments were strikingly similar overall. These results suggest a cultural homogeneity at the site, prompting the researchers to theorize that Akkadian identity was being suppressed rather than asserted. The precise motivation behind this “muting of difference” (88) is unclear, but it is possibly linked to sociopolitical factors.

Through the analysis of an exceptional grave from Dilmun (Bahrain), Boutin and Porter (ch. 4) challenge assumptions that ancient societies marginalized the disabled. The grave contained a woman of unusually short stature, a malformed upper right arm, and “knock-knees”—a condition in which the legs turn inward, causing the knees to touch and the feet to splay. Although her physical appearance and gait would have marked her as significantly different from the other members of the community, she was buried with an extraordinary assemblage of numerous and high-quality grave goods, suggesting that “her loss was especially profound” (97). Her grave, dating ca. 2050–1800 B.C.E., was excavated in 1941 by Peter B. Cornwall, a deaf Harvard graduate student. The authors make an interesting comparison between the reconstructed experience of the woman and that of her excavator, whose deafness hindered his doctoral research, complicated his professional relationships, and possibly influenced a period of self-imposed exile to Italy.

Osteological evidence from Bab edh-Dhraʽ, an Early Bronze Age site in the Jordan Valley, reveals that over time, funerary practices shifted in response to changing settlement patterns and social dynamics (ch. 5). The site was likely used as a regional burial center from the mid fourth to late third millennium B.C.E., and Sheridan, Ullinger, Gregoricka, and Chesson assert that marked commemoration of the dead coincided with population growth and increased alteration of the landscape.

The final chapters are concerned with Egyptian material. Smith and Buzon (ch. 6) explore the multifaceted impacts of colonization and cultural hybridity on commemorative practices at Tombos, an Egyptian colonial community in Sudanese Nubia (ca. 747–600 B.C.E.). Finally, Dabbs and Zabecki (ch. 7) discuss the commemoration of non-elites in the Amarna period (ca. 1352–1336 B.C.E.) at the South Tombs Cemetery of Tell el-Amarna. The skeletons buried in the cemetery show signs of physiological stress, suggesting that life at the newly constructed capital was arduous. However, the city was abandoned at the end of the Amarna period, and around this time the cemetery was extensively damaged. The authors argue that the damage was not exclusively the result of looting or grave robbing. Instead, they suggest that the survivors exhumed grave goods, and perhaps skeletal elements, of their loved ones so that the deceased could be “repatriated” to their ancestral homelands elsewhere in Egypt—a behavior observed in modern refugee populations, especially those from Africa.

Porter and Boutin’s interdisciplinary volume is a fascinating exhibition of new approaches to funerary archaeology of the ancient Near East. In addition to the presentation of innovative theoretical frameworks and research methods, many of the essays focus on the lives of non-elite and disenfranchised groups, whose stories are traditionally underrepresented in the scholarly literature. Likewise, the corpus of nonmetric data found in chapter 3 is valuable, since nonmetric analyses are rare in osteological studies of Near Eastern skeletal material. There are, however, lacunae in the geographical and chronological coverage of the volume. As the editors themselves point out, “the absence of [material from] Bronze Age and Iron Age Turkey, the Caucusus [sic], Iran, and Yemen are conspicuous and call out for more research and publication in traditionally under-represented regions of ancient Near Eastern studies” (14). Nevertheless, the volume sets a new standard for bioarchaeological studies of the ancient Near East, and it is hoped that the precedent set here will prompt future research of a similar sophisticated and comprehensive fashion.

Carrie L. Sulosky Weaver
Henry Clay Frick Department of History of Art and Architecture
University of Pittsburgh

Book Review of Remembering the Dead in the Ancient Near East: Recent Contributions from Bioarchaeology and Mortuary Archaeology, edited by Benjamin W. Porter and Alexis T. Boutin

Reviewed by Carrie L. Sulosky Weaver

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 120, No. 1 (January 2016)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1201.Weaver

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