Death and Archaeology

Death is the only guarantee in life. It is the creation of a new begging, to remove the old to make way for the new. We are inherently fascinated with death, but it is completely out of our control.  This simple truth is so toxic to our behavior, we become obsessed in trying to understand it, embrace it, or attempts to escape it. In doing so we try to make connections, form relations, and create significance.

Nowadays, we do not embrace death as our ancestors once did. We are too busy with day-to-day responsibilities to consider the inevitable, and we become surprised when death occurs to someone we may know. The fact that many do not embrace life strictly because we know it is limited removes any potential we have to build connections or relations of any real importance.  We no longer, as a society, dedicate unfathomable fortunes, resources and manpower to embrace death.

This was not always the case. Even our relatively recent relatives, in relation to the entire length of human history, did embrace, fear, or attempt to escape death.

For example, lets start with the Egyptians – specifically at the great pyramids of Giza Plateau. My first blog post, “It’s Just A Burial Site,” talks about my reasoning at the time and why the Egyptians built these ridiculously enormous monuments that were essentially an oversized tombstone.  I state, “They are simply apart of a glorified cemetery whose owners were hell-bent to build the largest representation of [themselves]… relative to the importance, riches, or ego of the individual who lies beneath.

However, as I have grown to understand more about ancient culture, and analyzed their actions from a systems viewpoint with a focus on behavioral and cultural influence, I realize these monuments were not just representations of an individual, but how the civilization viewed death. The Egyptians did not embrace or fear death; their culture was one that believed they could escape it. Their medium of escape was the mummification process and the pyramid was their vessel. Its magnitude and significance increase the chances of a safe arrival to another life.  As the Pharos, Priests, and other important individuals gained or loss power or significance, we observe the civilization’s approach to death through their dedication in building these monuments.

The second example of archeological significance I want to address is Stonehenge. As I analyze Stonehenge, its development over thousands of years, the way it was built, and theories of its use, I can hypothesize the civilization(s) in occupation did not try to escape death like the Egyptians, but they embraced it. They saw it as a new beginning. I’m not saying I have discovered the exact purpose of the structure, but I can define with confidence where every theory of its purpose over laps. (see my second blog post, “You Don’t Know What you Don’t Know… Or do you?.”

Stonehenge went through a series of developmental phases over roughly 7,000 years, each generation adding a significant addition. Each theory, or reason for these additions spoke of new begins and celebrating a new phase of life, in many forms. For example: When the ditch and embankments were being created, they were filled with deer and oxen bone, as well as flit tools at the bottom of the pit representing a sacrifice to the monument. In the same time period, Aubry Holes were created surrounding the monument. At the bottom of these holes over 5,000 pieces of cremated human and animal bones were found under tombstone type rock pillars. This finding reveals that the civilization dedicated life to the monument. Not much can be rendered from this, except only when this information is applied to later events. Next, we can observe the Durrington Walls, huge embankments that were used for festivals in December and January, during the winter solstice. At the festivals, enormous volumes of wild game were sacrificed and consumed in celebration of a new beginning – a new year. Many more theories suggest monument for death and life, a calendar to map the winter and summer solstice, and so on.  All have over lapping cultural relations with embracing death as a renewal of life.

Today, although we do not see these actions on a grand scale, some individuals realize the significance of death. We view these individuals as different from the rest of us. They embrace life and live it to the fullest. Some choose to party until it literally kills them, while others choose to make a name for themselves.  I believe if you do not fully embrace the inevitable, you can never really live in the present. It is those who realize their time is finite that make a lasting impression.

10 thoughts on “Death and Archaeology

  1. This blog post interested me for a few reasons. For one, I think the way a society reflects on death is highly indicative of what kind of society it was. Egyptian Pharaohs, believing in an afterlife that mirrored their own world, would enclose around them all their worldly possessions, and an unlucky servant or two. Their graves were analogous to vehicles to the afterlife – mounds of creation to symbolize the rebirth into the afterlife.
    What then can Stonehenge tell us? It certainly is a place of great importance but I don’t believe it was a site built for a specific purpose. Its purpose, like the views of those who populated the region, was likely to change over the 6000 years of edification. I believe the burrows and seasonal reverence of the site indicate a site associated with sacred renewal. Why go to the trouble of burying bodies, or the hundreds of bodies in the dozens of burrows around Stonehenge? I believe for a semi-nomadic culture, or at least one that hadn’t formed a permanent residence in the area, burying the dead in such grand manor left a location, a physical site, in which to be close to the dearly departed. I believe Stonehenge was a kind of communal graveyard, whose purpose changed as the culture developed and changed around it.
    While I did like this blog post, I must confess I find the author’s opinion on modern day society’s interpretation of death a little naive. I volunteer for the Hospice of Lansing. A hospice is a relatively new invention, in which terminally ill patients are given specialized medical and emotional therapy in order to meet death in which ever fashion they decide. There are still some in our society dedicating much time, effort and money in the goal of making death’s embrace as painless as possible. I think the institution of hospices and the advent of palliative care medicine indicate a society well aware of death and one that faces our so-called inevitability with great compassion.

  2. You make a good point about how humanity deals with death. It is an inevitable truth, an unfortunate one, but a truth all the same. It is particularly interesting to see how a society deals with this particularly harsh topic. I believe that it gives some interesting insights on different cultures, as death remains a common theme across all of humanity, regardless of the place or time in which they lived. Different cultures tackled this tough topic in a variety of ways; some tried to escape death like the Egyptians through the process of mummification, others embraced it like those that lived at Stonehenge while others tried completely different ways. It is not common that there is something that is so fundamental to humanity that it remains constant over our entire history. This provides the unique opportunity of being able to compare these societies without them coexisting. Maybe this gives insight into how they lived? Perhaps the Egyptians desire to obtain immortality (or the escape of death as you call it) was a fundamental theme across their entire society, seeking to create such an impact so that one would be remembered in such a large society even long after they were gone. Does the potential ceremonial center at Stonehenge give insight into the spirituality of that culture? The other thing that makes death such an interesting topic is that humans are the only creatures that are so mystified by death that we hold burials, build shrines and countless other things to try and provide some answer to death. Humans actually have the capacity to try and cope with death, and each culture provides a unique way. However, the one thing that few, if any, cultures have is a complete lack of spiritual beliefs. Whether it is the culture employs a large organized religion, or practices smaller more personal spiritual beliefs, no culture touches on the fact that perhaps death…is just death. This fundamental belief that there is something more to death than just the physical shutdown of the body is a common theme that makes humanity unique.

  3. I thought your bog post was extremely insightful, in that it you were able to connect multiple different subject matters and find one common topic to connect them all, their reaction to death. Even though they all had different means and ways of reacting to the inevitable thing we all call death, they still are had two goals in mind; the first, being in their god(s) graces when they reached the after life and the second, being reborn so that they could walk the Earth once again. The Egyptian pharaohs and priests believing in an afterlife would try to mirror their lives with what they were when they were living. They did this so that when they reached the other side, their gods because of their vast wealth, would welcome them. Also the pyramid was supposed to be a sign of rebirth, allowing the spirit to be able to know exactly where to come back to when they were sent back from the afterlife. But what about the people of Stonehenge, you ask? I believe the burrows and periodic worship of the site indicated a site associated with sacred renewal. But why would they go through the trouble burying bodies, or the hundreds of bodies in the dozens of burrows around Stonehenge? My personal opinion is that with their nomadic culture they buried their fallen and ill at Stonehenge, to allow them to be close to them, and to allow their souls to be able to leave this world in what they consider a very holy and sanctimonious area.

  4. This is a very interesting blog post with which I agree. Ancient peoples were more accepting death and viewed it as a natural, healthy, and much necessary process of the life cycle. For instance, the ancient pagan belief was there were what are called the Triple Goddess. Three deities represented one goddess as well as the stages of a woman’s life the maiden, the mother, and the crone. These threes deities were symbolic of the life cycle of women. First being the maiden representing a young woman with such qualities as enchantment, inception, expansion, the promise of new beginnings, birth, youth and youthful enthusiasm. Second being the mother representing motherhood, ripeness, fertility, sexuality, fulfillment, stability, and power. Third being the crone representing the older woman, repose, wisdom, death, and mystery the final stage of life. The pagan belief system considered that every woman went through this cycle and inevitably would become the crone and pass on. This belief was more accepting of death and aging than our current society is. From a non-Western culture standpoint, the Hindu believe in a life cycle of constant death and rebirth, of reincarnation and eventually liberation from the life cycle. The Hindus believe that one never dies but transfers into new life. In Hinduism the god of death Yama is also called “Dharma Raja” which translates as the king of laws and justice. Yama, death, is seen as a law of life hence “Dharma Raja.” The fluidity and transfer of life in the Hindu belief system takes away the permanence and absolutist belief that death is final which allows for an easier acceptance.

  5. I thought you brought up some very interesting points on how mankind’s view of death has evolved over the ages. I think that in this era of technological advancement death has taken more of a fearful or looming role in society, especially since we have access to so much information and relationships. This is important to call out because there just simply is not enough time to accomplish all we want in life, and as a result death has become somewhat of an annoyance. Another interesting call out is the movement away from the belief that death as a transition to a different state of being. However, many would still argue that we still believe this interpretation, but looking from a purely scientific perspective it is difficult to support. With that said I would like to propose a new take on the ancient Egyptian’s view of death; I think that the reason that the pharaohs constructed these massive tombs and filled them with treasures was to help them transition through the afterlife, like mentioned in the original post. However, I think that the Egyptians did not view death as a finite occurrence that needed to be escaped, instead it was embraced as the new life in the underworld would be eternal. This belief led to the practicing of traditions they felt would make their “afterlife” more enjoyable i.e. the giant troves of wealth tucked away from the general public that would assure a prosperous and illustrious eternal reign.

  6. I agree death it the only guarantee in life. We all know that some day we are going to die. I don’t think it’s the fact that people forget about death theses days but the importance of it has changed. Many people do get caught up in their everyday responsibilities but people aren’t dying as fast as the use to back in the old days. In the new day of technology we find many ways to live longer and healthier. In the time of pharaohs people were dying at young ages and the preparation for death was important. They want to secure a good afterlife with the God’s, which they see as not an end to life but a new start. So even back then people really didn’t care so much about death itself but life afterwards. If you look at all the things they do, you see that it is all about still living life. Today we do have a holiday called Día de Muertos (day of the dead) where many people celebrate the loss of loved ones. They cook big meal, have a parade and paint skulls in honor of them. So still today we have people who embrace the dead of others with importance. In my own opinion I view death as and interesting part of life in which I find scientifically interesting. In regards to how I feel about dying, it means nothing to me. I’m not scared to die and I don’t think life is short. The length of life to me depends on how you view it. Anyone or thing can live days to years and it still not be a long time. Where as for me as long as I loved everyday I have lived, I have lived a good long life. But in the end i do agree with most of your blog of death. Death is a journey not a destination.

  7. This post is very insightful because it speaks of something that is almost universal: the thought of death. Death is different to each person, family, culture, and civilization. The Egyptians viewed death as a rebirth, a new life. Many people chose to be buried near Stonehenge, for whatever reason they chose. However, I would like to point out a very different view of death. In Buddhism, the afterlife and death are not thought of at all. It is often said that if you are asking what happens after death, you are asking the wrong question. In the teachings of the Buddha, if you are worried about death, you are simply worried about suffering. Instead of thinking about what happens after death, instead, think about what can be done to understand and rid yourself of suffering and dissatisfaction. This way, death is just an end. You shouldn’t worry about death, or search for an answer for it. Instead, search for an end to suffering. You should learn to cherish the life you have now, and enlighten yourself to the highest level possible. The Buddha believed that life’s worries, sufferings, and dissatisfactions were the root of human problems. These problems can be solved without mysterious deities, and can be solved within yourself. An end to the individuals problems lies within yourself. I just found this interesting that many cultures we have studied have some explanation for death or afterlife. A different view of death simply gives us a new point of view to see things from.

  8. Like all of the responses before me, Id like to start by saying this is a very interesting blog post, so good effort dicleme3. What I find interesting about your discussion of death is its relationship to the religious beliefs and practices of these ancient civilizations. It seems to me that they go potentially hand in hand, that these people who were dealing with death came up with burial ceremonies and rituals to honor the dead. I have always thought personally that one of the main functions of religion is a way to perceive death. I am in a religion class right now and we talk much about how religions primary function in societies is to act as a form of social control. In modern context, I agree, but I think this is not how or why religions were started.

    As we learned about Stonehenge this week the “religion” of the people who built it was significantly tied to agriculture. This is if we use the actual Stonehenge structure and its astronomical alignments as an indicator of the religious practices of the people who built it. However, there was also many burial sites in the area of Stonehenge so it seems that death was also significant to these people. I’m not going to try to make and profound conclusions about this topic because I don’t know much on the subject, but it is definitely interesting to me to discuss the significance of death to religion. I also though it would be nice to discuss religion today because its Easter, hope you all have a happy one.

  9. this post is make a very good point of view for death.Death is related to everything in our life and no one can actually escape it although many people or all the people have the thought to be not dead. Death is not just a way to go to heaven or someplace like that. For some people, it can be more. Like the Egyptians what mentioned on the post,it is actually not just burial site. it is a spiritual place with the hope of Pharaoh to start over and keeping ruling again in the “heaven”. But like Stonehenge, this post talked that it is not escaping death but to embrace it. My point of view is that all the ruler in the all the civilizations do not want to die. The reason they “embrace” the death because they want new phase of life which means no one want to end but to start over again and again. Every one has to accept death face to face and on one can escape. If no one dead, probably there will be no the you, me, all the living people in the world now. So death is the natual thing which actually contribute to archaeology a lot. Nowday, every remarkable archaeology project is related to death. For example, the Tutankhamun tomb and Terra-cotta Warriors and Horses were made becasue of the death of the king. So thank you for this post. Everyone is on the way to death, but death is not everyone’s destination.

  10. To be honest I am on the fence about the perception of death. Although I do believe to a degree that as technology moves forward people become less social and caring about on another. This can be seen from, lets just say, a couple both looking at their I-phones on a date. So computer technology now a days makes people care a little less but it can also be important to who HAS actually died, when the news for example posts information about someone’s death. More than just the people that met that person feel some form of remorse (depending on the individual).
    I believe that Archaeology make people more aware of death. As you said that the ancient pyramids described not just the person that passed away but also the society itself, and how they viewed death. When Archaeologists today dig up the remains of a society death is already pretty mush what they are dealing with. There is an end to all societies, a “death.” Agreeing that the average person today does not think about death on a 24/7 basis, but I think that is okay. Sure, once people hit the real world today they do not think about death as much, but even in past times people did not. Say a man starts a family, I do not think that the persons child’s death will be on their mind as much as how that child should be raised and I believe that is instinct. Maybe the Egyptians celebrated death differently but that goes a long with culture, everyone dies. Unless it is genocide, most people in society want to have something done with a body in remembrance.

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