8.0 Disposal as a rite of passage: the anthropological perspective

8.1 Introduction

Context and purpose

The study of mortuary practice is just one in the field of anthropology, which embraces humankind, its origins, physical characteristics, institutions, religious beliefs, and social relationships. This section surveys the more general conclusions of anthropologists about mortuary practice among recent peoples observed in the process of disposing of their dead and section 9 will use this evidence to suggest some models. This section describes how anthropologists, in their own studies of the mortuary rites and beliefs of some 19th-20th century cultures, have observed how elements of analysis, separately recorded in this review, come together and have been related. Their explanations of the evidence (which is much more complete in its scope than that from archaeology), and their contentions that there are often underlying universals of behaviour or belief are both important. So too is the fact that it is unsafe to make assumptions about similarities of belief, attitude or practice among different cultures simply on the grounds of similarities in the evidence culled from modern, let alone ancient, cultures. It is to understand what might underlie the visible that is important - and this is harder when oral, literary and epigraphic evidence do not survive.

Sources used, their advantages and limitations

There are some key 20th century works which have theorised on rites of passage generally, and on death as a rite of passage in particular. Some important recent works primarily field studies of communities and include accounts of mortuary ritual were also used. Some primary literary sources from the research period (but not the area) under study which have references to mortuary ritual were also consulted along with some general works devoted to (or with sections on) beliefs associated with peoples of the area and period under study. Since the focus is on production of an anthropological perspective on mortuary ritual, reference to archaeologists' explanations is omitted. This aspect has been treated in Section 2.

The works of theory are those of Hertz (1960a) and van Gennep (1909, trans. 1960). These have been heavily relied upon, given their standing in the field. Modern field studies of communities often quote the thinking of Hertz and van Gennep in their analyses. Some of these pay much attention to detail of mortuary activity, and directly report beliefs that the mortuary activities or processes represented. The field studies are revealing on four particular aspects: the variety of activity that mortuary ritual may entail, the complexity of underlying beliefs that may exist, the paradoxes of activities and beliefs possible in different cultures, and the fundamentally common structures of mortuary rituals and processes in many different parts of the world. However, the contrast between the activities witnessed and the meanings or belief that they represent for different cultures is a firm caution against categorical interpretations which depend on physical evidence alone. An important feature of these studies is the revelation that beliefs common to many cultures may exist beneath sometimes very different visible symbols.

The primary literary sources are the relevant writings that have survived from peoples contemporary with those living in southern Britain in 3500bc-AD43. The sources are selective, partly because of time and partly because the purpose of the exercise is limited to showing that there is evidence for cultures in those times with belief systems and practices not so different in essence from cultures described by anthropologists in their modern encounters. The sources are mostly Classical Greek and Roman authors, the timespan of whose writing covers the last part of the research period, from about 700BC [495bc] to about AD50. Passing reference is also made to Irish and Welsh works which are much later than the end of the research period. None of this evidence has the standing of that from modern field studies, but on occasion ancient writers refer to mortuary practices and related community behaviour. The prime purpose of these writings was not historical record, and sometimes they may be selective and propaganda tools. Rarely does a writer like Herodotus (de Selincourt 1954) record information as an anthropologist might, with inferences plain to see. On the other hand, to read these accounts with the analyses of Hertz, van Gennep and others to hand may be very illuminating, and it is possible to identify threads that stretch back from now to the British Bronze Age or earlier.

The fourth group comprises works of 20th century academics writing about funerary practice, ritual, religion and belief of peoples contemporary with those whose mortuary practices are under study, in particular the Greeks, Romans and the Celts. They provide a broader context for viewing the life of peoples in southern Britain over 3500bc-AD43, to which mortuary ritual might be related. In the case of works dealing with Classical times, several are detailed studies based on archaeology, literature, monuments and epigraphy. The evidence of Section 6 suggests that mortuary practice, beliefs and attitudes connect with cycles in community life. This group provides another prompt to understanding the context of death as a rite of passage, and to linking that context with others.

Transferability of the models

Hertz (1960b, 34) wrote that 'the ideas relating to the fate of the soul are in their very nature vague and indefinite: we shouldn't make them too clear cut'. No model, even if clear cut, is transferable with hope of a precise match from 20th-century recent cultures to those of 2000-6000 years ago, for which only material remains survive and those in a fragmentary and subjective record. The interest of the inquiry lies in assessing the balance of probabilities that peoples of southern Britain over 3500bc-AD43 held this or that attitude towards disposal of the dead, at this or that period or point in time, given that the evidence suggests particular directions at particular times. Nor may such assessment be made outside the context of likely social structures: there is an interplay between ritual and social structure (I. Morris 1992), and between the variability of a culture's burials and social differentiation (Binford 1971). The next section shows the framework of disposal practice within which models of attitudes will be developed.


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