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Prioritizing Death and Society: The Archaeology of Chalcolithic and Contemporary Cemeteries in the Southern Levant

Prioritizing Death and Society: The Archaeology of Chalcolithic and Contemporary Cemeteries in the Southern Levant

By Assaf Nativ (Approaches to Anthropological Archaeology). Pp. xiv + 301, figs. 46, tables 30. Acumen Publishing, Durham, England 2014. $120. ISBN 978-1-84465-751-3 (cloth).

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The volume under review, a thought-provoking combination of mortuary analyses of archaeological finds on the one hand and contemporary materials on the other, is based on the author’s Ph.D. dissertation at Tel Aviv University. Concentrating on evidence from Chalcolithic-period cemeteries in the southern Levant from the archaeological side and cemeteries from the contemporary State of Israel for the modern materials, the author aims to study cemeteries per se, comparing and differentiating between these two very distinctive phenomena and through these analyses to elucidate “their underlying logic and structure, determination of their organizing principles, the recognition of the main categories and concepts at play, and the distinction of the discourses they support” (11).

The choice of comparing and contrasting such culturally and temporally different phenomena stands out in any reading of this book, as the author himself admits (13). As such, while it stands out as both the uniqueness and major overall contribution of this study, one has to wonder whether the very comparison of such disparate occurrences is valid (in the end, I think it is).

Following two introductory chapters (pt. 1) in which the author defines the framework of the study and the theoretical underpinnings, the main body of the book consists of three additional parts.

In part 2, Nativ presents the evidence relating to Chalcolithic-period cemeteries in the southern Levant. This period, ca. 4500–3500 B.C.E., is known as the earliest Near Eastern culture using metallurgy, the earliest appearance of the secondary products revolution, and the first formal cemeteries with significant burial diversity. In his discussion, Nativ first defines several types of Chalcolithic burial grounds (single-cave cemeteries, multiple-cave cemeteries, karstic-cave cemeteries, funerary structure cemeteries, and “varia”). In this review of the evidence, the author demonstrates an impressively in-depth and up-to-date control of the relevant archaeological data, both published and unpublished. Two lacunae can nevertheless be noted. First, Nativ does not refer to the rather larger cemetery (ca. 90 burials) adjacent to the Early Chalcolithic cultic site at Gilat in the northwestern Negev (briefly, see I. Gilead, “Chalcolithic Culture History: Ghassulian and Other Entities in the Southern Levant,” in J.L. Lovell and Y.M. Rowan, eds., Culture, Chronology and the Chalcolithic: Theory and Transition [Oxford 2011] 12–24). While this cemetery does not necessarily change his conclusions (as it seems to be similar in concept to other large-scale cemeteries mentioned in the book), it nevertheless should have been mentioned in his survey. Second, perhaps the only major publication of a relevant cemetery (for which preliminary publications are mentioned) is the recent volume on the excavations at Peqi’in (D. Shalem, Z. Gal, and H. Smithline, Peqi’in: A Late Chalcolithic Burial Site, Upper Galilee, Israel [Kinneret, Israel 2013]), but as this appeared more or less at the same time as the reviewed volume, this is to be understood. Following this survey of the archaeological evidence, the author then goes on to define the concepts involved in this variability of cemeteries in the Chalcolithic cultures. In the final chapter of part 2, Nativ provides an overview of his views on the social roles of the different cemetery types. In his opinion, the large, single-cave cemeteries reflect societies in which the connection with the past was stronger, while the other types were more connected to building and sustaining group cohesion.

Part 3 deals with contemporary cemeteries in modern Israel. While he could not, within the constraints of this relatively slim volume, survey all cemeteries in Israel, Nativ chooses eight different cemeteries representing four basic categories: closed civil cemeteries, open civil cemeteries, civil kibbutz cemeteries, and military cemeteries. While one could argue for the need to include additional types representing additional facets of Israeli society (e.g., center/periphery, social differentiation, Jewish/Muslim/Christian), these cemetery types, and the specific cemeteries representing them, do provide a nice cross-section of significant aspects of modern Israeli Jewish society. All the graves that are included in the analyses are single, primary-burial graves adorned with some type of tombstone, the typical type of burial in modern Israel. The main evidence used for his analyses is information from the tombstones, which includes materials, shape, orientation, and the identity of the buried person (e.g., name, gender, date of death) as seen in the tombstone inscription. In general, the author notes changes over time in tombstone materials (most clearly from cement to stones of various types), less in tombstone morphology and more in tombstone elaboration. He also notes a clear distinction between religiously oriented and secular cemeteries; in the former there is more separation between males and females. When summarizing the data from all these cemeteries, the author notes that there are differences among all of them, save for the two military cemeteries (which is not at all surprising, as they are institutionally controlled).

Regarding his discussion of modern tombs, I believe two points are worth mentioning. First, in his discussion of tomb morphology, Nativ does not mention, even for the sake of showing familiarity, the classical studies by Deetz of North American Colonial-period tombstones and their development (e.g., In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life [Garden City, N.Y. 1996]). Second, Nativ’s discussions of various types of burial customs in modern Israel and their background would have benefited from an interaction with some of the work of the Israeli anthropologist Nissan Rubin, who has written extensively on various issues related to Jewish and contemporary Israeli burial, mourning, and memorial customs (e.g., “Personal Bereavement in a Collective Environment: Mourning in the Kibbutz,” Advances in Thanatology 5 [1982] 9–22; “Death Customs in a Non-Religious Kibbutz: The Use of Sacred Symbols in a Secular Society,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 25 [1986] 292–303; “Mourning and Memorialization in the Army,” Megamot 30 [1987] 139–50 [in Hebrew]; The End of Life: Rites of Burial and Mourning in the Talmud and Midrash [Tel-Aviv 1988]). Likewise, Azaryahu’s book on the military cemeteries of the early State of Israel (In their Death They Ordered: The Architecture of Military Cemeteries–The First Years [Tel Aviv 2012] [in Hebrew]) should have been consulted.

While fully acknowledging these differences, in part 4 Nativ focuses on what can be understood from the analyses of the cemeteries from these different cultures (Chalcolithic on the one hand, modern Israel on the other) and how this might reflect on the ideological underpinnings of each society. He suggests, among other things, that the memory of the individual in Chalcolithic society was transient and quickly merged with the collective. As opposed to this, in contemporary Israeli society the memory of the individual is preserved for long after his/her death. This said, while modern Israeli cemeteries (seemingly reflecting a “conceptual monopoly” [206]) and the Chalcolithic cemeteries have a rather heterogeneous character, it would be hard to say that Chalcolithic society is more diverse. Rather, the diversity of modern Israeli culture is manifested in other aspects and less in the cemeteries.

While this volume uses a novel method of comparative analyses (at least in comparison with most other studies of mortuary archaeology), and, clearly, each topic could be discussed in further detail, this refreshing look at the old and the new, the well-known and the less-known, in an attempt to coax out insights about both ancient and modern societies is to be warmly applauded. I highly recommend this volume for scholars interested in aspects relating to burial, mourning, and commemoration in ancient and modern societies.

Aren M. Maeir
Bar-Ilan University

Book Review of Prioritizing Death and Society: The Archaeology of Chalcolithic and Contemporary Cemeteries in the Southern Levant, by Assaf Nativ

Reviewed by Aren M. Maeir

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

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1201.Maeir


Iniciar estudo em Arqueologia dos Cemitérios no Brasil. Excelente artigo.

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