BMCR 2015.07.36

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. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2014. xv, 261. ISBN 9781607323242. $70.00.


A persistent thorn in the side of ancient Near Eastern scholarship is its poor habit of intra-disciplinary communication. A traditional manifestation of this problem is the binary of archaeology vs. text. Remembering the Dead is part of a recent trend of tackling this long-familiar divide beyond lip service. Indeed, it even breaches disciplinary boundaries, doing a remarkable job of presenting the view from bioarchaeology. Often tucked away in the back of excavation reports – or indeed entirely separated from principal volumes – bioarchaeological data tends to be excluded from consistent, systematic integration into the close readings of artefactual evidence or stratigraphic problems on which interpretative discussions principally rely. Porter and Boutin have bridged this gap in an accessible, informative, and thought-provoking set of papers in which bioarchaeological data dovetails variously into site stratigraphy, artefact typology, visual culture, and textual history. The book achieves a genuinely holistic perspective.

The introductory chapter, “Bringing Out the Dead in the Ancient Near East”, by Porter and Boutin, is excellent. It certainly does the necessary job of presenting a coherent introduction to the book and its aims. More importantly, it offers a thoughtful overview of past and present approaches to death in the ancient Near East. The authors identify the discrepancy between “sustained scholarly interest” in the subject and the “dearth of holistic studies” relating to it (1), which indeed characterizes the “irregular nature in which ancient Near Eastern mortuary contexts have been studied” (1-2). Of course, the sheer range of mortuary practices across time and space, not to mention the high degree of contextual variability in associated meanings, adds to the challenges confronting the field. Nonetheless, the authors take the vastness of data not as a limitation but an opportunity to explore the depth of analytical possibilities. The thematic, chronological, and regional range of the articles in the book showcases this approach very well.

Chapters 2-7 are a selection of case studies representing northern and southern Mesopotamia (Domuztepe in Chapter 2 and Kish in Chapter 3), the Gulf (Bahrain in Chapter 4), the Levant (Bab edh-Dhra‘ in Chapter 5) and Egypt (Tombos in Chapter 6 and Tell el-Amarna in Chapter 7). As is often the case with such collections, Anatolia is conspicuously absent. Especially from a methodological point of view, the selection of articles demonstrates the extent to which bioarchaeological solutions may be offered to archaeological and/or historical problems.

Chapter 2 on “Burying Things,” by Campbell, Kansa, Bichener, and Lau, takes Neolithic Domuztepe as a case study for shifting focus from human burial as an exclusive category of symbolic action in order to explore a “wider pattern of burial and structured disposal of things” (27). In addition to human remains, the burial of feasting remains, objects, as well as architecture and soil are discussed in separate sections, demonstrating the interpretative range for ritual activity and its nexus with waste disposal. The complex stratigraphic relationships within the famous Death Pit in particular and across the site in general are presented with detail and interpretation, which sets the stage for a discussion of faunal remains. The analysis of their selective distribution across the site as well as within specific deposits is particularly informative, placing ‘ritual’ within a wider context of other formalised and carefully prescribed activities such as processing, preparation, and disposal. While the burial of all manner of non-human things – ranging from beads to buildings – is not an unfamiliar theme for protohistoric and historic Mesopotamia, it does tend to be simply filed under ‘ritual deposits’ and hence isolated from other forms of ritual behaviour surrounding human burial. The authors’ formulations, which specifically place human burial within a wider range of formalised deposition, can therefore inspire fresh approaches to interpreting ritual deposits in later periods as well.

In Chapter 3, “Strange People and Exotic Thing,” Pestle, Torres-Rouff, and Daverman revisit skeletal evidence from a cemetery at Kish, combining biological data with mortuary treatment to explore ethnic Akkadian visibility in the burial record. The scene is set at the crucial transition in Mesopotamian political history from the Early Dynastic (henceforth ED) into the Akkadian period. Can the events during this period of flux in and around Kish – an important centre which was very much in the eye of the storm – be linked to a change in mortuary trends? Can we, in other words, tell Akkadians from Sumerians? The apparent uniformity observed in both ED and Akkadian graves would suggest otherwise, as neither grave construction nor burial goods seem to flag clear differences. Bioarchaeological data, on the other hand, offers a different perspective. The authors’ conclusions center on biodistance analyses of two groups, namely the individuals from Ingharra (predominantly ED burials) and those from Mound A (ED-Akkadian transition). Having found Mound A males to have been distinct not only from both sexes of the Ingharra group but also from Mound A females, the authors propose an “influx of ‘exotic’ males into the city” at the onset of the Akkadian period. The discrepancy between biological difference and archaeological uniformity is then interpreted in terms of a deliberate strategy of playing down differences, perhaps in this case to maintain political advantage. Once again we are reminded of the tenuous link between ethnic identity and funerary expression, although the authors are careful to acknowledge the “small hints we have of Akkadian-ness in the pots and pins found with some individuals” (89). Smith and Buzon’s postulated distinction between “inscribed” vs“incorporated” memory (Chapter 6) is very much applicable here, too. Ultimately, as Pestle, Torres-Rouff, and Daverman point out, a great deal does “[depend] on who was doing the burying” (88).

Chapter 4, “Commemorating Disability in Early Dilmun” by Boutin and Porter, zooms in on Peter B. Cornwall’s excavations in Bahrain in 1940-41. The authors set out to “investigate the sociocultural meanings of disability, tacking between the experiences of a twentieth century archaeologist and the ancient woman whose remains he brought to light,” (97-8). This is an intriguing point of departure but one that is all too open to criticism. The link made between Cornwall – who was deaf – and one of the numerous burials he excavated – which happens to belong to a young woman with skeletal deformities – simply because both individuals fall within the broad spectrum of ‘disability’ is far too tenuous. In fact, the authors themselves note the conspicuous absence of any indication in Cornwall’s own documents that he considered himself disabled, as they also admit the difficulty of fathoming Skeleton 12-10146’s experiences. The theme of disability in the ancient world is certainly of great interest, and the authors contextualise it well within wider debates surrounding ‘the body.’ They also stress the implications of seeing disability in the archaeological record for gauging social structures and networks relating to dependency and care. From this perspective, 12-10146 already makes an interesting case study. However, the interpretative potential for situating 12-10146 and her remarkably wealthy assemblage of burial goods within the normative trends for her able-bodied but more poorly equipped contemporaries is perhaps not fully exploited. The account of Cornwall’s expedition to Bahrain, which is a fascinating piece of archaeological history in itself, presents perhaps a more thought-provoking view of disability, as it brings into sharp focus how a baseline of normative bodies are taken for granted in archaeological praxis: “Archaeologists ‘walk’ the landscape, ‘dig’ ancient buildings, and describe their evidence using vision and touch” (99).

In Chapter 5, Sheridan, Ullinger, Gregoricka, and Chesson offer a detailed “Bioarchaeological Reconstruction of Group Identity at Early Bronze Age Bab edh-Dhra‘, Jordan.” The peculiarities of the site, its Early Bronze Age (henceforth EBA) history and the visible shifts in population, settlement, and mortuary practices from EBIA to EBII-III are effectively problematized in preparing the ground for bioarchaeological analyses as a unique means of testing and enhancing interpretations. The succeeding sections devoted to osteological data, methods, and findings (and the ca. 20 pages of accompanying tables and graphs) are surely a goldmine for the specialist, but prove rather impenetrable for the uninitiated. This does not, however, detract from the authors’ compelling conclusions at the end. The EBII-III population’s genetic difference from regional comparanda being greater than its difference from the EBIA population at the same site, the authors consider “changing definitions of kinship” (176), which they situate within a growing community. Such a change has many significant implications, for instance, in evaluating the monopoly of a certain group or groups over rights to (visible) burial. The juxtaposition of bioarchaeological data and visible change in mortuary practices in this chapter nicely complements the ‘reverse’ method in Chapter 3, where bioarchaeological data is utilised to explore visible continuity.

Chapter 6, “Identity, Commemoration, and Remembrance in Colonial Encounters”, by Smith and Buzon, explores commemoration in the context of Egypto-Nubian colonial contact in Tombos. A particularly good case in point for integrating bioarchaeology with material culture is the authors’ re-evaluation of the overall character of the cemetery. Judging by its formal attributes, the cemetery should read ‘Egyptian’ but bioarchaeological analyses show the Tombos population to have been a mixture of Egyptians and Nubians. The additional challenges posed by the long history of gene flow between Egyptian and Nubian populations are discussed in detail, enhancing the complexity of the picture. The section dealing with mortuary treatment and burial goods demonstrates complex admixtures of Nubian and Egyptian customs and puts theory into practice by referring back to the conceptual framework of inscribed vs. incorporated memory that they invoke at the outset. The potential blurring of the line between these two types of memory is picked up by the authors, who point out the difficulty of categorising specialised burial goods (e.g. ushabti figurines) definitively: To what extent do such culturally bounded items emerge in burial contexts simply out of habit and to what extent are they intended as overt displays of ethnic affiliation and/or social identity? The case at Tombos is a particularly rich and informative one to guide the formulation of similar questions in other ancient Near Eastern contexts. Smith and Buzon provide a valuable opportunity to question wider interpretative issues, such as the view of Egypto-Nubian interactions as “a classic relationship of dominant core and subordinate periphery” (188).

“Abandoned Memories” by Dabbs and Zabecki is the volume’s final chapter. It turns to the looted (?) graves at Tell el-Amarna’s South Tombs Cemetery (henceforth STC), and offers compelling interpretations for its peculiarities. Beginning with an informative account of the idiosyncrasies of Tell el-Amarna itself and situating life and death within its unique context, this chapter presents an exceptionally well-balanced synthesis of history, archaeology, iconography, and bioarchaeology. In particular, the authors’ reassessment of grave robbing at the STC is noteworthy. Dabbs and Zabecki point out the unlikelihood of systematic looting of tombs for economic benefit given the paucity of valuable grave goods in undisturbed contexts. Instead, they suggest that the graves may have been opened by none other than the families of the deceased, looking to take away skeletal remains for repatriation as they abandoned Akhenaten’s short-lived city. Parallels with similar trends in modern refugee cultures make this an attractive argument, though one rather important question remains: How to reconcile the implications of dismembering the dead with Egyptian beliefs about the afterlife?

With Chapter 7 the book comes to an abrupt end. It is a shame that its well-grounded Introduction is not complemented by a conclusion of some kind, to strengthen the connective tissue across the chapters. As a whole, however, Remembering the Dead succeeds in striking a good balance between showing what bioarchaeology can do for the more ‘traditional’ methods of mortuary analyses, and what such methods can do for bioarchaeology. It is therefore highly recommended, not exclusively for funerary specialists, but for anyone invested in achieving greater interdisciplinary readings of the ancient past.