Burial Practices in the Near East during the Neolithic

The Neolithic revolution changed many aspects of mankind’s life, improving their agriculture, technology and living standards. Such a big impact on everyday life, must have further consequences, and it is not surprising that the Neolithic brought new ways of thinking about death and life, which are reflected in the mortuary practices of these people. Essentially, a new material culture was created due to these changes.Today’s update will explore this subject, with a particular focus on the Near East region.

Many disciplines have contributed to this evolving fields in the last decades; archaeology in particular, but also anthropology and ethnography have provided new insights. Thanks to them we know that most of the burials sites that are found in the Near East are actually quite exceptional. The are unique exceptions that have ben preserved until our days. In fact current researchers argue that it is quite likely that most of the bodies from this period and area were disposed in ways that have left no archaeological record.

Nevertheless, we have learnt certain things about these burials. For example, it is evident that the locations for these burials were varied. Bodies could be interred not only in cemeteries but right under the household space as well, perhaps in order to keep a close connection between the living and the deceased. Second burials, or re-burials were abundant. The site of Tell Ain el-Kerhk (Syria), is a good example. However, it has been brought to our attention hat these practices may not have been performed as means of disrespect of the dead, or acts of violence. There is a strong possibility that the removal of skulls and other bones was a sign of veneration. It also seems apparent that in the Near East cremations were few in number, and that the bodies from these burials tend to appear in skeletal form rather than fleshed. Furthermore, mixed burials of people, animals and objects, like the ones at Kfar HaHoresh (Israel), are recurrent. Finally, other burials present strange elements tha accompany the body. For example, the monoliths at Göbekli Tepe show carvings in stone of human-like beings, similarly to the evidence found in Nevali Çori (Anatolia). Other examples of unusual mortuary practices are the plaster statuary of Ain Ghazal (North-West Jordan) or the masks found in the Nahal Hemar cave in Israel.

These odd, or perhaps disturbing practices of broken bones, and items found within burials, along side plastered skulls and severed heads suggest that there was an immediate manipulation of the bodies. Because of this fact and its implications, these burials have been lately approach with a different attitude. Researchers strongly argue that these reveal ideas of identity and selfhood, as well as the relationship between the deceased and the rest of the world. In addition, many archaeologists and anthropologists are supporters of the idea that using gender identities to study these burials is not a useful approach. It ahs been argued that gender was a social construct and that categories like that are constructed and deconstructed at different stages in history. Therefore, judging them from our anachronistic viewpoint may alter the data analysis. Death had a different meaning than it has nowadays. It seems than within these societies, the end of life was seeing as a transition and a transformation. The dead had still a role to fulfill in the world of the living. And this role may have varied from place to place, in the same way that the practices applied to the funerary rite changed depending on the geographical region and the people who inhabited such places. There was no uniformity.

Granted, it is this lack of patterns that makes it difficult for archaeologists and other academics to investigate this area of study. But at the same time it provides a perfect field for interdisciplinary studies, and the opportunity to find brand new evidence.

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Exciting, isn’t it?

As a historian I don’t often have the chance to study things like this. But for some reason I have always found burials and funerary practices quite exotic, so sometimes I find myself looking at my fellow archaeologists with envy… So for our Tag Challenge I picked two random tags and…here we go! A great way to start a new field!

If you like this subject as well and fancy a good read on the matter I recommend the following book:

Croucher, K., Death and Dying in the Neolithic Near East (Oxford, 2012).

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