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Mortuary Ritual and Society in Bronze Age Cyprus

Mortuary Ritual and Society in Bronze Age Cyprus

By Priscilla Keswani (Monographs in Mediterranean Archaeology). Pp. xii + 257, charts 11, tables 38, drawings 5, maps 2. Equinox, London 2004. $125. ISBN 1-904768-03-2 (cloth).

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This is a well-structured book on a complicated yet intriguing matter: the reconstruction of social structure and meanings from funerary rituals handed down via archaeological investigations.

The volume consists of six chapters: (1) a brief and clear introduction; (2) a chapter on theory containing a stringent history of research and a very useful “state of the discipline”; (3) a chapter on methodology and in particular the conditions for carrying out this kind of research in Cyprus; (4) the Early and Middle Bronze Age material; (5) the Late Bronze Age; and finally (6) a concluding chapter on change and social dynamics.

The text is accompanied by tables. Some of them summarize the material evidence as a sort of condensed catalogue, while others provide various statistical data. One of these tables is a wealth index; it combines the density of valuables (gold jewelry, luxury goods of ivory, faience, and glass) in relation to chamber floor area. This relation may indicate the “absolute” wealth of the tomb. However, I am somewhat troubled by the theoretical basis of this particular table, as space itself may indeed indicate wealth. It does so in later Cypriot tombs, notably the Archaic-built chamber tombs, yet spacious chambers would obscure the valuables–density rate. Factors other than valuables found in tombs (e.g., processions, festive arrangements, music, dance, and common meals) may have contributed to what comprised a “decent” funeral. By operating with fixed statistical data there is a latent risk of overlooking sources less easy to calculate and fit into tables.

The overall question of the book—no matter how deep an ethnological foundation the analyses are built on—is whether it is possible to reconstruct social hierarchy among the living and among the dead. How is it done? What is required of the researcher and not least the empirical data? The list of precautions seems endless: extracting cultural meaning requires a remarkable faculty of perceiving and knowledge of the contexts.

The basic presumption is that “there are recurrent (if by no means universal) patterns of mortuary ritual associated with processes of sociopolitical and economic competition, and the exegesis of these patterns contributes to an understanding of how systems of inequality are created and naturalized through ritual performances and material symbolism” (10). We tread on thin ice between the general (human cognition) and the particular (cultural meanings). The postprocessual hermeneutic answer of this book is to work contextually as a superhero archaeologist, encompassing everything and viewing both the “changes in mortuary ritual and the broader sociopolitical and economic contexts in which they occur” (20). From the particular case of Bronze Age Cyprus we may then gain insights and knowledge on the relationship between mortuary ritual and social life in general.

One of the major and fundamental archaeological obstacles is, however, to distinguish mortuary rituals in collective tombs—to differentiate the remains of ritual behavior from primary burials and the so-called post-depositional disturbances/secondary burials, looting, or natural “disarrangements” caused by flooding or erosion. Ideally, if undisturbed by looters or nature, the collective tomb should represent all stages in the ritual cycle of a “burial program” from the first position of the new interment to the reorganization of earlier burials and their goods. But to distinguish between these stages is difficult, not least when the analyses rest on earlier publications rather than on newly excavated tombs with the ritual practice interest fresh in mind. Yet, Keswani argues that it is possible to reconstruct such ritual programs with as full as possible a registration of the condition and completeness of the skeletal remains and the evidence of sequential or simultaneous interments. This, of course, requires a detailed excavation record and good general find conditions. The further assertion is that these ritual sequences hold information that enables us to say something about the social order among the living via these rituals. It is, however, all very complicated and multifaceted.

Perhaps the conclusions are not that different from those we would reach without posing such complex questions concerning the relation between ritual programs and social strategy, introducing the burial as a forum of assertion or negotiations of social structure and hierarchy. It is somehow as if it has become an academic necessity to pose complicated questions in a way that detaches the ancient Cypriotes from performing a funeral, grieving, and mourning. Instead they negotiate social structure and execute ritual programs. It is both a noble and necessary ambition to pose challenging questions if the discipline is to evolve and sharpen its heuristic capacities, yet there is a latent danger of alienating the ancients from (real) life as we know and experience it ourselves.

Thus, another aim could be, quite simply, to find out as much as possible about Cypriot “society” through the funerary evidence and place it in a “thick,” contextual reading/description. This is, in fact, what we find in this book, and it is a good and happy finding. It is just that from time to time it seems somewhat needlessly obscured.

Anne Marie Carstens
The Saxo Institute
University of Copenhagen
Njalsgade 80
DK-2300 Copenhagen S

Book Review of Mortuary Ritual and Society in Bronze Age Cyprus, by Priscilla Keswani

Reviewed by Anne Marie Carstens

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 110, No. 4 (October 2006)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1104.Carstens

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