Death is a universal experience, yet the way we mourn and remember our dead can vary drastically from culture to culture. In some societies, elaborate funerary rites and ceremonies are performed in order to send the deceased off into the afterlife, while in others, the body is simply buried or cremated with little fanfare.
One of the ways that archaeologists can learn about how a particular culture remembered and honored its dead is by studying the funerary objects found in burial sites. These objects range from simple items like pottery sherds or stone tools to elaborate offerings like jewelry, weapons, or games (Figure 1). By analyzing the funerary objects found in a burial site, archaeologists can gain insights into the beliefs and practices of a culture surrounding death and the afterlife (Ucko 1969).
For example, the ancient Egyptians believed that the afterlife was a continuation of this life, so they placed great importance on funerary objects. Everything from how the body was prepared for mummification to the objects placed in the tomb was designed to help the deceased reach and enjoy the afterlife (Canadian Museum of History 2019).
Sometimes the objects are status symbols, like a wealthy person’s gold rings or a leader’s sword (Figure 2). Other times they are more personal, like a child’s favorite toy (Figure 3) or a loved one’s image (DeMarrais, Castillo, and Earle 1996).
In other cultures, funerary objects served a more practical purpose. For example, in Jewish culture, it is believed that the soul of the deceased can not rest unless their body is properly cared for. This means that providing the deceased with a washing and purification ritual known as “Tahara” is of the utmost importance (PBS 2013).
No matter what their purpose, funerary objects offer a window into the complex and fascinating ways that different cultures dealt with death. By studying these objects, we can learn about the people who created and used them and gain a better understanding of our shared humanity.
For more information surrounding death and anthropology, please visit:
- Canadian Museum of History. 2019. “Egyptian Civilization – Religion – Life after Death.” Historymuseum.ca. 2019. https://www.historymuseum.ca/cmc/exhibitions/civil/egypt/egcr04e.html.
- DeMarrais, Elizabeth, Luis Jaime Castillo, and Timothy Earle. 1996. “Ideology, Materialization, and Power Strategies.” Current Anthropology 37 (1): 15–31. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2744153.
- MET. 2022. “Gameboard and Gaming Pieces.” Metmuseum.org. 2022. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/544775.
- Odysseus. 2007. “Ministry of Culture and Sports | Archaeological Museum of Eretria.” Odysseus.culture.gr. 2007. http://odysseus.culture.gr/h/4/eh430.jsp?obj_id=9352.
- PBS. 2013. “February 6, 2004 ~ Jewish Burial Practices | February 6, 2004 | Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly | PBS.” Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly. May 10, 2013. https://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/2004/02/06/february-6-2004-jewish-burial-practices/1794/.
- Ruggeri, Amanda. 2022. “The Mystery Ancient Toys Puzzling Archaeologists.” Www.bbc.com. August 16, 2022. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20220816-the-worlds-oldest-toys-what-toys-were-used-in-the-past.
- Ucko, Peter J. 1969. “Ethnography and Archaeological Interpretation of Funerary Remains.” World Archaeology 1 (2): 262–80. https://www.jstor.org/stable/123966.
- UCL. 2020. “The Walberton ‘Warrior.’” Archaeology South-East. March 11, 2020. https://www.ucl.ac.uk/archaeology-south-east/news/2020/mar/walberton-warrior.
- Viajonarios. 2019. “Atenas: O Histórico Cemitério Kerameikos E Museu Arqueológico.” Viajonários. January 26, 2019. https://viajonarios.com/en/cemetery-kerameikos/?amp.
How can studying rituals of death and dying help us understand what is valued in a particular culture in life?
Rituals of death and dying can help us understand what is valued in a particular culture in life by providing insight into the beliefs and values that the culture holds about death and the afterlife. By understanding the rituals that are performed during funerals and other memorial ceremonies, we can learn about the cultural values that are placed on death and the deceased.