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Ömür Harmansah

Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology



Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World
Brown University
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Alex R. Knodell Contemporary Issues in Archaeological Theory Prof. Omur Harmansah 14 February 2008

Defining Burial in Archaeology

In any field, especially an academic one, it is natural for people to become involved with a set of terms which, while seemingly used naturally within the discipline, really tend to have a diverse range of meaning both within and without the field. It is therefore very important that, as writers, we be specific in what we mean when using these terms; and as readers, that we be aware of the baggage that attends such terminology. One of these fundamental terms, encountered very often in archaeology and holding a whole slew of academic, social, and ethical connotations, is burial.

We can start by defining burial in the sense that most people understand it. Presumably the definition given by the New Oxford American Dictionary will suffice:

burial |ˈberēəl| noun

the action or practice of interring a dead body : his remains were shipped home for burial.

We even have a definition here specific to archaeology, which seems perfectly satisfactory at a basic level, and I doubt many people outside of academia would argue with it. So what do archaeologists have to say about the term? Renfrew and Bahn (2004), in their popular textbook, Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice, do not lay out a specific definition of the term or discuss the baggage that comes with it. Their index points the reader to issues and types of burials dealt with individually throughout the text, such as elite burials or burials at specific sites, and suggests that the reader “see also cemeteries; grave-goods; graves; human remains; tombs” (Renfrew and Bahn 2004: 640). Searching for a single archaeological definition of this term is elusive even on the most basic levels. For the remainder of this paper, I would like to explore some ways to define “burial” and the archaeological issues that accompany it. While it is not possible for what is below to serve as a dictionary entry or textbook definition, these are all things (and there are many more) that archaeologists need to keep in mind when using this term and dealing with the concept of a burial.

In the interest of structure, I would like to break this paper up to deal with physical/formal then conceptual/functional issues. A burial can take many forms, but I imagine what comes to mind for most people is a single rectangular hole in the ground, into which a rectangular box is lowered and then covered over with soil. This is a generalization most people I know would make based on personal observations and representations in popular culture. But we all know that there are many other burial customs being practiced in the world, and that have been practiced through time. So formally, this becomes very difficult to define. In archaeology, we talk about cremation and inhumation burials, so what was done to the body before it was buried is a factor, as is size, shape, and construction of the place into which the body (or bodies) is deposited. What sort of materials were used, the type and quantity of grave goods buried, the size and shape, are some important physical and formal elements of a burial. Location is also very important. Factors such as orientation depth (or elevation), visibility, and relation to other features of the landscape all contribute to the way a burial is encountered.

What if the body is not below ground? Or not buried in the conventional sense (e.g. put in a mausoleum, contain more than one person, are different than burials around it, etc.)? Or what if the burial was disturbed or robbed and the body taken, is it still a burial? These and other questions problematize conventional definitions of what physically constitutes a burial and are important to take into consideration.

The physical form of something is of course linked to its conception, which played a role in determining the form, and function, which makes use of the form. Conception and function are related issues but by no means the same thing, as function changes over time. Archaeologically, it can be difficult to determine how exactly something was originally conceived, though we can make educated guesses; and we often face similar problems when considering function, especially in antiquity. But our assessment of a burial (or really anything archaeological) cannot be limited to antiquity, and must also examine its contemporary function: how we relate to it as archaeologists, popular opinion of it, how we effect it and it effects us.

For us, burials function as some of our most important records of the human past. Often intended not to be disturbed, they tend to preserve material culture better than many other archaeological contexts, and can provide important information about past social, political, economic, and ideological orientations. However, they can also provide very little or potentially misleading information. For example, on the one hand we have burials containing numerous and diverse grave goods, well preserved human remains, external markers and texts that refer to it; on the other we also have to deal with burials that amount to little more than a few bones in a hole in the ground. The conception and function of these types of burials would obviously be very different. In consideration of the past function of a particular burial, we must recognize that its function is dependent on the people who created it, are contained in it, and will encounter it. A burial’s function is also dependent on the things and other features of the landscape around it, and changes as the people, things, and landscape change. A burial can be meant to function in one way when it is created, then just a few years later take on completely new meanings and functions as the attitudes of the people around it develop and change. The site of Lefkandi in Euboia, Greece is an excellent example of this. It is the unique and complicated site of a so-called hero-burial, made in the Early Iron Age, where a man and a woman were buried within a huge apsidal structure, bigger than any other building from this time period in Greece. We can’t be sure if it was built before or after the burial, but we can be relatively certain it was filled-in and made into a mound shortly after its construction. In the following generations an elite cemetery (containing by far the wealthiest tombs at the site, aside from the hero-burial) emerged around the mound, with burials being made in explicit reference to the burial within placed around the then buried entrance to the building (Morris 1999). Thus the elaborate burial designed to honor the man and woman in the building became a point of reference to honor those buried close to it. This is a simple synopsis of a complicated site, but I think illustrates the point.

Above all it is important that we recognize the multiplicity of meanings burials in the archaeological record have. If there is a monument that also contains a burial, like at Lefkandi, is it a burial, a shrine, a gathering place? Does it cease to be a burial if it is being used as a shrine? My suggestion for dealing with questions like this is to take an approach articulated \by Chris Witmore, that it does not need to be “either… or…”, but can rather be considered “both… and…” Recognition of the hybrid nature of burials as a concept that formally and functionally involves people, things, and place all at the same time is of utmost importance in archaeology, and needs to be taken into consideration whenever we encounter such a complicated feature as a burial. And while all of this cannot be placed in a simple definition of “burial,” these remain important issues for archaeologists and anyone seeking to better understand the ancient world, both as it existed then and as we encounter it now.


Renfrew, C. and Paul Bahn. 2004. Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice. London: Thames and Hudson.

Morris, I. 2000. Archaeology as Cultural History. Oxford: Blackwell

Additional (very short) Bibliography on Burial in Greece, all of which have more extensive bibliographies which I won’t reproduce here:

Antonaccio, C. 2002. Warriors, Traders, and Ancestors: the “Heroes” of Lefkandi. In Hojte, J.M. (ed.) Images of Ancestors. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press; Oxford: Lavis Marketing.

Antonaccio, C. 1995. An Archaeology of Ancestors: Tomb Cult and Hero Cult in Early Greece. London: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Calligas, P.G. 1988. Hero-Cult in Early Iron Age Greece. In Hägg et al. 1988: 228-34.

Morris, I. 1987. Burial and Ancient Society: The Rise of the Greek City-State. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Witley, J. 1988. Early States and Hero Cults. Journal of Hellenic Studies 108: 173-82.