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Death and Changing Rituals: Function and Meaning in Ancient Funerary Practices

Death and Changing Rituals: Function and Meaning in Ancient Funerary Practices

Edited by J. Rasmus Brandt, Marina Prusac, and Håkon Roland (Studies in Funerary Archaeology 7). Pp. xx + 456, figs. 105, tables 12. Oxbow Books, Oxford 2015. $70. ISBN 978-1-78297-639-4 (cloth).

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Funerary archaeology in the last decades has been developed predominantly through works focused on specific periods and scientific analysis. In 2008, an international conference at the University of Oslo sought to buck this trend, gathering a diverse group of academics to explore death and funerary ritual through comparison and contrast. This edited book presents the results of that conference. The title expresses well the focus of the meeting on funerary ritual and its changing nature, but readers should be aware that despite the book’s subtitle reference to “ancient funerary practices” and the images selected to decorate its front cover, the publication is not limited to the classical Mediterranean world and includes papers that range from the Neolithic to modern history and from North America to the Caucasus.

The introductory chapter by Brandt clearly establishes the main interest of the book in studying the ways changes in funerary rituals and practices occur. None of the contributions refer to scientific approaches, and the thrust of the book is to reconsider ritual activities as a social construct, and, more precisely, to understand the relation of changes in funerary practices to broader cultural and ideological transformations. The introduction identifies several thematic interests that the contributions touch upon: belief and ritual, body and deposition, place and burial, and performance and commemoration. Still, the majority of the chapters in the book revolve around the ideas of embodiment and theory of practice. Brandt also introduces some of the common methodological approaches found in the book, such as the study of the tension between change and tradition in rituals, and the use of the work of van Gennep and Turner to set the bases for the analysis of ritual practice.

Chapter 1, by Stutz, delves further into the relation between death and ritual, revising in some detail the idea of rite of passage in relation to ritual change. This article tries to recognize human attitudes to death that underpin the variety of cultural contexts that form human history, an attempt starkly underlined by the comparison of cases from Victorian England, the 20th-century United States, and Mesolithic Scandinavia. One of the contribution’s most interesting points is the examination of ritual as practice—a study that serves as a theoretical introduction for the other chapters in the book. Another argument raised by Stutz that runs through the whole book is that changes in ritual may be explained by evolving cultural ideas rather than by economic and social aspects, providing a needed interpretative alternative to more traditional approaches to death.

The rest of the chapters are ordered roughly chronologically, and they can be divided into three major sections. The first section is formed by the contributions of Dolfini and Fowler on late prehistory. Both papers present the kind of large archaeological overviews that are typical in this book. Dolfini reviews burial practices in Neolithic and Chalcolithic Italy. As he struggles to find a clear connection of changes in the burial record with sociopolitical factors, the author turns to the fluid nature of social identities in this period to explain ritual transformations. Fowler’s survey of burial customs in Early Bronze Age Northumbria concentrates on the changes from inhumation to cremation and from isolated to communal burials. These two papers exemplify well the repeated interest in the book to combine large spatiotemporal overviews with detailed bottom-up data studies, resulting in the recognition of complex patterns in the record that escape straightforward socioeconomic explanations.

Chapter 5, by Brandt, stands out in the volume, as it is an extensive study of Etruscan funerary iconography that is closer to art history than to archaeology. His study of the conception of the underworld in Etruscan art rejects acculturation as a valid explanation of change and presents a complex set of circumstances in which existing local ideas of the afterlife interact with Greek iconographic influences.

The next set of contributions follows Brandt’s critique of simple acculturation mechanisms, and the papers aim to study the relations between Roman culture and local traditions in the Roman provinces through changes in the burial ritual. The four articles in this section never abandon the study of the material record, but in most cases this is combined with epigraphical and textual evidence. In chapter 6, Ahrens reviews the rite of cremation in Asia Minor from the Hellenistic to the Roman period in another long overview spanning more than six centuries. Pearce’s investigation of burial customs in Roman South Britain and Belgium in chapter 7 recognizes much more dynamism than expected in the range of identities that were displayed in tombs of that period. In the following chapter, Prusac suggests that the processes of romanization in the Dalmatian region allowed for burials to express individual identities more freely in the burial record. Chapter 9, by Rebillard, investigates the move in third-century C.E. North African cemeteries from offerings to the dead to commensality between the living.

The next section of papers moves to the post-Roman period and the complex picture that Christian beliefs and a fast-changing world brought to the burial record. I include here Härke and Belinskij’s work in chapter 4. This contribution differs from most of the papers in the volume as it follows the life of a single cemetery for more than 15 centuries, providing a rare focused analysis of long-term dynamics at a small scale. Chapters 10 and 11, by Achim and Bowden, highlight the rapidly changing world of the early Medieval period in the west central coastal area of the Black Sea and Albania, respectively. Chapter 12, by Oestigaard, provides a fresh contrast to the focus of previous papers on the Roman and Byzantine worlds by investigating how tradition was reinvented in a Norwegian Medieval cemetery to enable social and ritual transformations. The contribution by Gilchrist in chapter 13 moves the emphasis slightly later, to the better-contextualized rites of Anglo-Saxon Britain. This allows her to match changes in the archaeological record to Christian beliefs and to demonstrate how new concerns about the integrity of the body marked changes in burial practices and grave goods. Tarlow’s concluding paper follows the path opened by the preceding one, as she is able to survey the range of textually recorded beliefs that impact the responses to the dead in post-Medieval Britain and Ireland. The use of textual evidence in the last two papers strengthens the point made by other authors about the importance of ideas and beliefs for understanding ritual practice in cemeteries.

The book is well presented, with no mistakes and a number of clear illustrations, many of them in color. The book suffers slightly from a lack of coherent editing. Some papers are extremely long, while others are quite brief. More cumbersome is the use of endnotes in some, even though the majority use in-text citations. The inclusion of appendices to support some of the large data overviews, while unusual in edited books, is welcome since they add analytical strength to their respective contributions.

The last sentence of the introduction makes clear that the book aims to interlink the diverse chapters through the study of funerary ritual change across time and space. I believe that the book is highly successful in its main goal; all the papers are closely related to the main themes, making the volume a good example of the strength of comparative approaches. The main focus on Roman and Late Antique periods will appeal to scholars specializing in those periods, but others readers will find the comparable approaches to a varied range of spatiotemporal contexts stimulating. I found it interesting that most of the papers move away from social and political factors to explain change and focus instead on the role played by identity and belief in understanding transformations in the burial record. Archaeology on its own struggles to explore such connections between the burial record and the ideas that shaped it, and this book showcases the importance of establishing comparison across a variety of regions, periods, and methodologies. The volume’s success in bringing together the different contributions under a similar set of questions and approaches forms an admirable example of how to combine local studies to gain much wider relevance. I therefore would recommend the book to any academic or student interested in the study of death in the past.

Borja Legarra Herrero
University College London Institute of Archaeology

Book Review of Death and Changing Rituals: Function and Meaning in Ancient Funerary Practices, edited by J. Rasmus Brandt, Marina Prusac, and Håkon Roland

Reviewed by Borja Legarra Herrero

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 120, No. 4 (October 2016)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1204.LegarraHerrero

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