Burying the dead (at Tlatilco and elsewhere)

Posted on March 19, 2011


I read a wide swath of archaeological news every day, and this past week the news I am reading has been resonating– or really, has presented a counterpoint to– the writing I have been doing myself. Because, as is typical, many of the news stories I am reading are about finds of human remains, which seem to attract reporters, while my own work on a collaborative project has sent me back to look at burial practices in the Classic period lower Ulua Valley of Honduras.

The resonance or counterpoint in these two bodies of reading comes from the fact that the news coverage of burials is weirdly disembodied and impersonal, even when the human subjects involved should stir our sympathies; while my own writing and that of my collaborators is dedicated to seeing burials as a trace of a living community engaged in dealing with a major life passage.

Three examples of news stories can start us off, out of many, and not with the intent of reflecting badly on the researchers at all (emphasizing, as I always intend to do, that news stories are not how any of us would represent ourselves, and reveal more about widely shared cultural images of archaeology and the past).

First, there is the story of the discovery of the remains of a cremated 3 year old buried 11,500 years ago in Alaska:

The child’s burned bone fragments were found in a fire pit in the remains of an ancient house near the Tanana River in central Alaska. Researchers date the cremation to 11,500 years ago. After the child’s body was burned, researchers report in the Feb. 25 issue of the journal Science, the house and hearth were buried and abandoned.

“The fact that the child was cremated within the center of the house … this was an important member of society”

Stephanie Pappas, of Fox News, writes, quoting archaeologist Ben Potter of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

This is a familiar storyline. Burial treatment is seen as a reflection of the social status of the buried individual. Children’s burials like this, of course, have long been acknowledged to introduce some difficulty in this way of thinking about burials:  how is a three year old so important that his or her death required abandonment of the entire house?

Potter, the lead investigator, is quoted as saying that the team was touched by the excavation of this child:

“We both have young children around the same age,” Potter said of himself and Irish. “That was quite remarkable for both of us to be thinking, beyond the scientific aspect, that yes, this was a living breathing human being that died.”

This expression of sentiment about the dead is critical for us to understand, because it is in some ways contradictory to the generalizing sense of taking the child’s burials as an indication of his or her “importance” as “a member of society”.

Which of us think of ourselves as “members of society”? Or, better, of our parents or grandparents or brothers or sisters or sons or daughters as “members of society”?

I actually found the coverage of the Alaska burial more sympathetic than other stories I reviewed over the same short period.

Take, for instance, this BBC report on an unexpected find in Scotland, where a standing stone fell over and led excavators to two Bronze Age pots. You can almost hear archaeologist Melanie Johnson struggling to answer reporters’ questions, to make them understand why this casual find is worth covering in the news:

“The pots are typical of early Bronze Age cremation burials….People were burned on pyres and their remains gathered, put into pots and buried upside down in a pit.”

Ms Johnson said there was “plenty of bone” inside the pots, which would be enough to determine the gender and age of the person, and if they had illnesses or trauma wounds.

“Plenty of bone”. Somehow, that rattles when juxtaposed to the proposal that the gender, age, history of illness, and trauma that would allow the creation of an osteobiography of a person. But it is not half as jarring as where the rest of the emphasis is put by the BBC story: the recovery of human remains will allow radiocarbon dating of the standing stone, putting to rest a controversy over that broad historical detail.

Coverage of an Irish excavation of a Bronze Age burial is particularly dehumanizing. Here, a local resident building a shed recognized that he had exposed human remains, and in came the team from the national archaeological museum, summing up the importance of the find thusly:

“The very interesting thing about Rickardstown is a similar bowl was found by a Mr Thomas O’Farrell in the 1940s” at a quarry nearby…This find fits the Bronze Age burial tradition of often isolated burials. Three distinct areas of decoration had been identified on the bowl…

the remains, which were buried in a slightly flexed crouch position, and the bowl could date from as far back as 2200 BC…

“We are very grateful to him. Due to his prompt recognition of it, it did save the bulk of the vessel. It did aid in the bowl being in the state that it is at the moment.”

What was buried here: a human being, or a bowl?

Again, I stress, the selection of emphasis is not only that of the archaeologist, and we read what the archaeologists said through the filter of reporters. But we gave the reporters those narratives in the first place, so we share the responsibility of trying to change them.

How, you may ask? By writing differently, I have suggested. In 1997 I presented a paper designed to suggest a different way of talking about burials, at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, which was eventually published as “Burying the Dead at Tlatilco: Social Memory and Social Identities” in New Perspectives on Mortuary Analysis, edited by Meredith Chesson (2001: Papers of the Archaeology Division of the American Anthropology Association, Number 10).

The paper was based on my analysis of variability in burials excavated and published by Mexican archaeologists at the site of a buried village dating to the Formative period, on the southern edge of modern Mexico City. Working with the published burial catalogues, I constructed a database and used exploratory data analysis to investigate possible categorical explanations for variation, starting with biological sex, which I found accounted for very little variability. The most significant factors in explaining variation among the more than 200 burials that were documented were age of the person at death, and the local cluster– probably resulting from burial in proximity to the location of the household. Unfortunately, unless you have library access to the publications of the American Anthropological Association, you cannot get to this one online.

I actually used this analysis first in a different study, one that providentially anyone interested can access, in which I reported these basic results as we normally do: as evidence for a reconstructing of society, of categorical actions. But even then, I wrote that “mortuary rites are the highly charged occasion on which the web linking one individual to others, through birth, marriage, and clientage, is displayed and the rent social fabric is rewoven, now linked through the dead.”

In my 1997 paper, drawing on the same analysis, I confronted what I felt then, and continue to feel, is a problem with the way archaeology approaches the sites of death that form a very large part of what we encounter as remains of the past: our apparent inability to keep in focus that burying the dead, as a suite of practices carried out by the surviving community, entails not just a mechanical set of procedures inherited as a tradition, but the emotional negotiation of the landscape of death.

Notice that I am not suggesting there is a universal emotional response to death (I am quite clear about this in these publications).

But I am insisting that when a past population created a burial that was so materially marked that it can persist as a recognizable feature for 3000, 4000, or 11,000 years, there were powerful moods and motivations involved.

In “Burying the Dead at Tlatilco”, I demonstrated how our normal language for talking about burials gets in the way of recognizing the buried person as a person. Through the course of the essay, I described a series of burials selected to represent typical and atypical treatments of women of different ages.

I began with the impersonal and detached language we routinely use when talking of burials:

Burial 14A was one of five female burials forming a single cluster. Aged between seventeen and nineteen years, this individual exhibited the rarer tabular oblique cranial deformation, found in only seven burials at the site. The individual lacked any grave goods.

I ended with a paragraph that I hoped, and still hope, conveyed the information I knew accurately but dealt with the subjects as human beings– human beings whose lives we have a hint of because the mourning community they left behind treated them with care:

most elderly women were buried more simply. The forty-four-year-old woman in Burial 189 wore a simple necklace of bone beads. The fifty-year-old woman in Burial 195 in the same group was placed in her grave with no imperishable ornamentation at all, and like her House sister had no pottery vessels or figurines in her grave. The extremely elderly woman in Burial 63, bent by severe spinal arthritis, although sufficiently well loved to be carefully buried, was also placed in her grave without ornament or elaboration. Unlike the younger women of Tlatilco, these older women had established their social memories through their lives, and through the names of their children and children’s children and the passing on of family traditions and heirlooms.

I don’t claim to be unique in turning away from the impersonal language of our disciplinary past. But I do wonder why we cannot seem to get beyond that past when we speak to reporters.

Why is it so rare to read the kind of confession of human emotion and identification provided by Ben Potter:

“yes, this was a living breathing human being that died.”

Why is it so much more common for archaeologists to appear to value the objects in burials more than the lives of the people whose death they commemorated?