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Home > Research > Past Post Doctoral Scholars

Performing Death: Social Analyses Of Funerary Traditions In The Ancient Mediterranean

Organized by Nicola Laneri
The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago
February 17–18, 2006
1155 East 58th Street, Chicago, IL

#More than three decades after the publication of the book Approaches to the Social Dimensions of Mortuary Practices (Brown 1971), archaeologists are still strongly concerned with issues related to the analysis and interpretation of ancient funerary data and related burial practices (Chapman 2003). In fact, the funerary data appears to be among the fundamental elements necessary for the reconstruction of the social, cultural, and economic dynamics of ancient communities.

The funerary ritual, as with many other expressions of human culture, should be viewed as a formal representation of the ideological performance that is portrayed by the community of living beings concerning the end of life. In other words, the construction of the funerary ritual itself is based on the creation of a web of symbolic meanings by the group to which the individual dead belongs, and in which the elements of the material culture—the objects composing the funerary set, the dead body, the songs and lamentations of the living—express the need to transform a negative event, such as death, into a positive one (Goody 1962: 28–52), because, as Metcalf and Huntington (1991: 108) have correctly pointed out, the moment of death is related not only to the process of afterlife, but also to the process of living, ageing and producing progeny. As a consequence, the reconstruction of ancient funerary rituals through a process of interpreting the archaeological data should represent a primary target for the involved scholars.

Since the beginning of the XXth century, the analysis and interpretation of ancient and modern funerary rituals has been the aim of both archaeologists and ethnographers interested in defining the role played by burial practices within the construction of a common heritage by living communities. Moreover, ritualistic performances, as well as the creation of funerary monuments and complexes and the writing of mythological stories, constitute the founding framework for a collective memory of a given society’s culture (kulturelle Gedächtnis; Assmann 1992), and, subsequently, reinforce the social boundaries of the community in which these ritualistic performances are enacted. Archaeologists should bear in mind these theoretical premises while digging, analyzing, and interpreting any ancient funerary structure. In fact, during the excavation of a funerary context, it is not merely static layers of ancient objects and human bones that are uncovered, but rather material culture that can lead to the interpretation and reconstruction of ancient rituals (Parker Pearson 1999: 193–197). Obviously, original data such as direct contact with living communities is missing and only the material culture resulting from the remains of the ritual action is available (Renfrew 1985: 11–3). However, the target of interpretation can still be attained through the translation of the archaeological data of the funerary contexts into hypothetical texts. The texts that originally existed were written by the ancient communities strongly referring to specific cultural and social contexts (Parker Pearson 1982: 99–101). In these hypothetical texts the grammar is replaced by the symbols incorporated into the material culture, and the syntax is shaped according to the metaphors related to them and the values given to reinforce the social identity of the group (Binford 1972; Cerchiai and d’Agostino 1999: 1–35). In this way, a fabricated, ritualistic communication is more elaborate than a traditional form of verbal communication (e.g., written text) because it is based on a thick context of social customs, historical practices, and day-to-day routines of the performers (Bell 1997: 171), as well as a multifaceted structure of beliefs (Insoll 2004: 10–12).

Within this perspective, the social elements become key features to take into consideration during the interpretation of funerary rituals as determined by the enactment of such rituals within a given community, for a ritual shapes ideological frameworks and reinforces the construction of social, cultural, and ethnic identities, clearly marking the line between the performers of the ritual and the ‘Others’ (Cuozzo 2003; Morris 1987).

The aim of the conference

My investigations into the funerary customs of IIIrd Millennium BC Ancient Near Eastern societies has lead to the broaden perspective I hold on the subject today. As part of this work, cross-cultural analogies have made possible the attempt to compare the data from such societies with the burial practices of other ancient and modern communities. Through analogies of the symbolic role played by the material culture in the construction and enactment of certain aspects of funerary rituals (e.g., the metaphor related to the concept of fertility and rebirth), I have been able to speculate on the conception of general traits of cultural representation by ancient communities, as well as the embedding of burial practices in a more complex form of religious beliefs (see Laneri 2004).

This epistemological method is driven by the need to identify the reasons behind the religious dimension of ancient and modern societies and the relationship of this dimension to the social dynamics of these societies. A cognitive approach towards the evolution of religious thought and the rituals connected to it could potentially help scholars in defining a universal language of the mind, which, as pointed out by Giambattista Vico (1977: 247–363), is recognizable in every society. This approach can support archaeological, textual, and anthropological research for the definition of a similar framework of scientific inference applicable to the available data. Moreover, I believe it is important for archaeologists to analyse and interpret the funerary practices of ancient communities as a symbolic/projective sub-system (Renfrew 1972: 35–45) acting within the broader scenario of the entire social, cultural, and economic dynamics of a given society, also reflected in Susan Pollock’s intelligent interpretation of IIIrd Millennium BC funerary practices in southern Mesopotamia: death [becomes] a contested realm in which various elements within society competed for control of the dead just as they competed for control of the labor and products of the living (1999: 216–217).

Fundamental to the successful realization of this research process is an active dialogue between scholars of different archaeological and historical backgrounds. These communicative exchanges provide the opportunity to integrate different approaches and interpretations concerning the role played by the performance of ancient funerary rituals within a given society and, as a result, can help in defining a coherent outcome towards the interpretation of ancient communities’ behaviours. It is for these reasons that the conference Performing Death. Social Analyses of Funerary Traditions in the Ancient Mediterranean, to be held at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago on February 17–18, 2006, will concentrate its efforts in analysing and interpreting, both from textual and archaeological evidences, the social relevance resulting from the enactment of funerary rituals within the broad-reaching Mediterranean basin as a point of cultural interconnection and exchange between diverse ancient communities from Egypt, France, Greece, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Palestine, Spain, Syria, and Turkey. In fact, beginning with prehistoric periods the entire region has been characterized by a long-term process of evolution in its burial practices, and a particularly important aspect to be further developed is how the transformation of the burial practices has affected the social dynamics of the communities populating such a broad geographical area during ancient times.

Thus, the two-day conference on the ancient funerary rituals in the Mediterranean and Near Eastern regions will be an incredible and helpful step towards the recognition of the importance of burial practices as a mean for understanding the social structure of ancient communities. Moreover, the aim of the proposed conference is to present case studies from archaeological contexts within the Mediterranean regions, where the funerary data is linked to a broader discourse about defining, interpreting and reconstructing ancient performances of funerary rituals and how they affect the construction and development of ancient social and cultural behaviors within a broad chronological period in a given geographical scenario. The different papers will bring to the discussion numerous elements concerning art historical, textual and archaeological interpretations of data related to ancient funerary practices.

The conference’s key participants are as follows:

  1. Maurice Bloch—The London School of Economics and Political Science, UK
  2. James Brown—Northwestern University, USA
  3. Luca Cerchiai—University of Salerno, Italy
  4. Meredith Chesson—Notre Dame University, USA
  5. Robert Chapman—University of Reading, UK
  6. Massimo Cultraro—Ist. per i Beni Archeologici - CNR, Italy
  7. Michael Dietler—University of Chicago, USA
  8. Stephen Harvey—Oriental Institute, USA
  9. Dina Katz—NINO, Leiden University, Holland
  10. Ellen Morris—Columbia University, USA
  11. John Pollini—University of Southern California, USA
  12. Angela Pontrandolfo—University of Salerno, Italy
  13. Susan Pollock—Binghamton University, USA
  14. John Robb—Cambridge University, UK
  15. Glenn Schwartz—Johns Hopkins University, USA
  16. Seth Richardson—Oriental Institute, USA
  17. Ian Rutherford—Florida State University, USA

For information and free registration, contact:

Organizer, Nicola Laneri
Post-Doctoral Scholar at the University of Chicago Oriental Institute
Tel. (773) 702-9524
1155 E. 58th St.
Chicago, IL 60637


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Revised: March 10, 2009

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