Processes and practices of death: Toward a bioarchaeology of Dynamic societies

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


In some ways, the field of mortuary analysis has been dominated by a discourse on politics. But it is a particular approach to politics – one that is concerned with identifying social differentiation through the ways that people have been buried. “Social differentiation” and the sociopolitical relations, actions, and power dynamics that are read into differentiation have remained the main concern of processual and postprocessual approaches to mortuary evidence as a key point in both accessing sociopolitical complexity and examining everyday social relations. Yet a focus on the presence or absence of social differentiation often leads to an interpretation of societies that are for the most part static, until they suddenly, dramatically change, rather than to an interpretation of dynamic societies that are always in flux, always changing, and always becoming. Mortuary analysis, however, can be interested in the between spaces, in the processes of change and reorganization as they take place over time. If we view cemeteries as places that may be used over hundreds of years, surviving regimes and even revolutions, how then can we reorient our interpretations of burial practices in relation to changes in sociopolitical ideology? In this chapter, I suggest that the deceased body and its postmortem treatment are particularly illuminating as a material locus of continuity, of change, and perhaps of the contestation of ideologies. I will focus on secondary burials, which may be defined as burials involving a long intermediary period, after which the remains of a dead body are recovered from their original place of deposition and moved to a new location. During this intermediary period, various postmortem practices are employed to transform a corpse to “clean” or purified bones, which are then laid to rest in a second ceremony (Parker Pearson 1999: 50). This process is sometimes interpreted as destroying the individual identity of the deceased and, paradoxically, at other times as marking individuality through differentiation with another type of postmortem treatment. Similarly, mortuary rituals themselves can be a (re)integrating force within society, but they may also be a site of disruption (Geertz 1973c: 169), of the local appropriation of hegemonic ideologies (Kus and Raharijaona 2001: 123–124), of oppositional claims to identity (Rempel 2004: 104), and even of denying power relations and undermining central authority (Buikstra and Charles 1999: 217; Pauketat and Alt 2003: 170–171).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Archaeology of Power and Politics in Eurasia
Subtitle of host publicationRegimes and Revolutions
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages16
ISBN (Electronic)9781139061186
ISBN (Print)9781107016521
StatePublished - Jan 1 2009
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


Dive into the research topics of 'Processes and practices of death: Toward a bioarchaeology of Dynamic societies'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this