Burial Practices: An eHRAF workbook for introductory archaeology courses

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Exercise ID: 2.3
Class size: Any
Level: III
Source: Produced by HRAF

Learning Objectives

Does the exercise compare 2 or more cultures? Yes
Subject selection: Single subject specified by teacher
Subjects/OCMS, if applicable: Burial practices
Region selection: pre-selected
Region, if applicable: Various
Culture selection: Student chooses from pre-selected list
Cultures/OWCs, if applicable:

Classroom Guide

Instructions for navigating eHRAF included? Yes
Assignments for students to complete in groups? No
Assignments for students to complete on their own? Yes
Instructions for Microfiche version? No

Christiane Cunnar, Human Relations Area Files

The following exercises are designed for in-class use or as homework assignment in an introductory archaeology course.  They are linked to data in eHRAF World Cultures and eHRAF Archaeology. The purpose of the workbook is to give the students a feel for archaeological regional differences, and to give the students an understanding of the structure and functionality of the eHRAF databases.

The exercises start out easy as students can directly link to readings in sections 1.1-5 and 1.7.  In sections 1.6. and 1.8-10 they become increasingly difficult. Students are asked to perform searches using a unique subject indexing system, called Outline of Cultural Materials (OCM). Detailed instructions are provided to guide the students through the exercises.

Attention Instructors: The following exercises use both eHRAF databases, eHRAF Archaeology and World Cultures. If your institution currently doesn’t have access to the databases the hyperlinks will not work and you will see a blank white screen (when hyperlinking).  Contact HRAF for a password and then log onto the database before performing the exercises. Please also note that once you hyperlink to the text in the database you leave this web site. To return to this web site, use the browers back button, mark this web site as bookmark, or open this web site as separate screen.  Answer keys are available for instructors.

If you need a password,  an answer key, or have questions, please contact Christiane Cunnar, HRAF, at hraf@yale.edu or call her at 1-800-520-HRAF, or at 203-764-9401.

Section 1. Burial Practices in Prehistory and in the Ethnographic Record

Compare and contrast the following readings on prehistoric burial practices found in Asia, Oceania, and North America. Think about the reasons why burial customs may vary around the world? In what ways do they differ, in what ways are they similar? How may burials reflect the level of socio-political and economic complexity of a society? What role does the environment play in determining burial practices? What role does preservation play in the interpretation of burial remains? What roles do animals play in burials? Read the following sections and answer the questions for each section. To return to this web site, hit your browser’s back button, or open a separate window with this web site.

Section 1.1. The Scythian Tradition in West-Central Asia

Learn about the Scythian tradition by reading its tradition summary. Then read and answer the following questions pertaining to Renate Rolle’s chapter titled ” 2 Death and burial”in “The world of the Scythians.”

1.1.1.   What is the date and place coverage for the Scythian tradition?
1.1.2.   What are the burial mounds called in eastern Europe and in the Ukraine?
1.1.3.   What precious metal can be found in the graves?
1.1.4.  What does Rolle call the Scythian cave-like burials that are characterized by their subterranean position?
1.1.5.   What method of preservation was used for the royalty in Scythian times?
1.1.6.   According to traditional folk belief, what is the length of time between death and burial?
1.1.7.   What two preservation materials were used on the corpses?
1.1.8.   What does the height of the burial mound usually indicate?
1.1.9.   What is assumed to have stood on top of the burial mounds when first erected?

Section 1.2. The Late Southern California Tradition in North America

Learn about the Late Southern California Tradition by reading its tradition summary.  Then read and answer the following questions pertaining to Jeanne E. Arnold’s short section titled “Burials” in “Craft specialization in the prehistoric Channel Islands, California.

1.2.1.      What are the names of the sites?
1.2.2.      What is the place and date coverage for the Late Southern California tradition?
1.2.3.      What special items were found at these sites?
1.2.4.      What do archaeologists link these special items with?

Section 1.3 The Classic Maya Tradition in Eastern Mesoamerica

Learn about the Classic Maya tradition by reading its tradition summary.  Then read and answer the following questions pertaining to Ledyard Smith’s chapter on the “General Discussion of Burials” in his book “Uaxactun, Guatemala: excavations of 1931-1937.”

1.3.1.      How does Smith distinguish between a simple grave, cist, crypt and chamber?
1.3.2.    What is the site name and its location, date coverage for the period, and field date for the   excavation?
1.3.3.      In what two major positions were the skeletons found at Uaxactun?
1.3.4.      What two major types of body alterations were performed on the Classic Maya?
1.3.5.      What type of preservation of the body was common to the Early and Late Classic Periods?
1.3.6.      What types of ornaments were found as grave goods?
1.3.7.      What is the unusual burial practice found in the Late Classic Period, but not in the Early Classic Period that involves a precious stone?

Section 1.4 The Hawaiian Tradition in the Major Islands of Hawaii

Learn about the Hawaiian tradition by reading its tradition summary.  Then read and answer the questions pertaining to the section on ” Disposal of the Dead” in Vinton Kirch’s book titled “Feathered gods and fishhooks: an introduction to Hawaian archaeology and prehistory.”

1.4.1.      What different types of burials does Kirch discuss?
1.4.2.      According to Kirch, what is the most common form of burial?
1.4.3.      What is the place and date coverage for the Hawaiian tradition?
1.4.4.      Ornaments, found in the burial of an old female, may indicate what status of the deceased?
1.4.5.      Where can the bodies of the deceased be found in house burials?
1.4.6.      Who was usually buried in temple burials?

Section 1.5. Burial Practices in the Ganges Neolithic Tradition in India

Read Harendra Prasad Sinhas subchapter titled Burials” in “Archaeological and cultural history of north Bihar: with special reference to Neolithic-Chirand” and answer the following questions:

1.5.1        What is the name of the site and what are the time periods associated with the site?
1.5.2        Why is this site so different?
1.5.3        Why were no human remains found at the site?

Section 1.6. Cremation: A Specific Type of Mortuary Practice

The readings in section 1.4 (Hawaiian tradition) and section 1.5 (Ganges Neolithic tradition) refer specifically to crematory practices. Use eHRAF Archaeology to explore other archaeological traditions that make reference to crematory practices. Select any five archaeological traditions from five different regions.  In your findings include the following aspects: 1) Name the archaeological tradition and region; 2) What might be associated with a cremation (e.g., are pottery vessels, stone tools, ornaments)? 3) Are there any indication of ritualistic practices?


  1. In eHRAF Archaeology at http://ehrafarchaeology.yale.edu  click on ‘Advanced Search’ on the upper tab.
  2. In the Keyword box type in the word cremat*. (Truncating word with an asterisk retrieves word variations such as cremation, cremated, etc.). This searches for the word “cremat” at paragraph-level in all the documents of archaeological traditions in eHRAF.
  3. Once in the traditions results page click on the various tradition names and click on “Show paragraph” to read the information in the paragraph, or click on “Show Page” to read the information in the context of the page.
  4. Select 5 archaeological traditions from 5 different regions and answer the questions as outline in the paragraph above.

Section 1.7.  Crematory Practices of the Khasi: An Ethnography by a Missionary in India

In some cultures mortuary practices can be a very involved as the grieving family, relatives and friends prepare the body for a life in the afterworld. The different aspects of disposing of the dead include preservation (e.g., embalming, desiccation); location of disposal of corpse (e.g., cemetery, ossuary); receptacles (e.g., coffin, canoe, urn, tomb); method of disposal (e.g., cremation, sea burial, cave burial, tree or scaffold burial); preparation of grave, pyre, or scaffold; disposition of corpse (e.g., posture, orientation); funerary mounds, monuments, and memorials; burial rites; mortuary sacrifices; and disposition of grave goods.

Although burials are usually associated with the presence of human remains, this is not always the case. Cremations are suggested to account for the absence of human remains even though grave goods are present (see Kirch in Section 1.4. and Sinha in Section 1.5).  Ethnohistorical data and ethnographies are sometimes used by archaeologists to support certain assumptions.

Find out more about the crematory processes of the Khasi culture in the Meghalaya State of India, as discussed by P. F. Stegmiller, an apostolic missionary.  Stegmiller describes how a deceased is prepared for the journey into the afterworld.  Read and answer the following questions pertaining to the section titled “The Cremation (ka jingthang)” in Stegmiller’s book titled “The Religious Life of the Khasi.

1.7.1.   In the crematory process what distinguishes the various socio-economic classes?
1.7.2.   What items are placed by the body of a man, what items are placed by the body of a woman on the funerary pyre, but then they are not burned?
1.7.3.   At the crematory ceremony a goat is sacrificed.  Stegmiller compares a sacrificed he-goat to a scapegoat in which aspect?
1.7.4.   What other animals might be used at cremation ceremonies?
1.7.5.   Once the corpse is burned what is done with the remains and where are they stored.

Section 1.8. Animal Remains in Prehistoric Human Burials

Human burials often contain remains of different types of animals such as wolves, dogs, bison, sheep, pigs, antelopes, goats, horses, etc.  Human activity and natural processes are often cited as the reason that animals appear in human burials.  For example, maybe a person had a favorite pet, perhaps a canine such as a dog or wolf which was sacrificed to accompany the deceased master on his/her journey into the afterlife.  Maybe the favorite dog, after it died, was added to the burial at a later date. Animals, such as the horses found in the Scythian burials (see Section 1.1.), may also indicate the wealth and status of an individual. Animals may be sacrificed in an elaborate ritual to provide food for the deceased in the afterlife, and/or for purification purposes. Or maybe natural post-depositional processes such as the shifting of soil may have resulted in a coincidental relationship between the animal and the tomb.

In the section on the Ganges Neolithic tradition in India (see section 1.5),  Harendra Prasad Sinhas chapter titledBurials” in “Archaeological and cultural history of north Bihar: with special reference to Neolithic-Chirand” supports the idea that when a master died, a dog was sacrificed and added to the burial.

Can you find other archaeological sites/traditions in eHRAF Archaeology that contain remains of dogs in burials? Select any five archaeological traditions from five different regions.  In your findings include the following: 1) Name of the archaeological tradition and region; 2) Briefly describe the context (e.g., are the dogs associated with pottery vessels, stone tools, human skeletons? 3) Are there any ritualistic practices?

Instructions: Use http://ehrafarchaeology.yale.edu to link to eHRAF Archaeology. Use the Advanced Search to search for the OCMs 764 (Burial Practices and Funerals) and 766 (Special Burial Practices and Funerals). The eHRAF Search Examples and Methodology section at the HRAF home page show how this is done.

Section 1.9. Dogs used in Funerary Practices: Using the eHRAF Collection of Ethnography

The ethnographic record may offer some insight into the use of dogs in prehistoric funerary customs.  Using the eHRAF Collection of Ethnography, search for dogs associated with burial practices for the following ethnic groups: Tlingit; Ojibwa; Southern Toraja, Eastern Toraja. Briefly describe how these four ethnic groups use dogs differently in their funerary customs.

Instructions: Use http://ehrafworldcultures.yale.edu to link to eHRAF World Cultures . This Advanced Search uses the OCM 764 Burial Practices and Funerals and OCM 766 Special Burial Practices and Funerals. The eHRAF Search Examples and Methodology section at the HRAF home page shows search queries in Advanced Search.

Section 1.10. Grave Goods– Indicators of Status and Prestige?

The mode of disposal usually indicates the status of a person.  For example, a person of high status is buried in fancy attire and grave goods usually include ornaments such as necklaces, ceramic vessels that contain food for the journey into the afterlife, and other objects. For example, Renate Rolle’s chapter titled ” 2 Death and burial” in “The world of the Scythians” (see Section 1.1. for more detail) discusses elaborate burials as being a signs of wealth and status.  Anne Underhill suggests that pigs found in Dawenkou burials in China may signify high status of person(s). Read Underhill’s chapter on ” Display of Status” in “An Analysis of Mortuary Ritual at the Dawenkou Site, Shandong, China” to learn about ancient Asian mortuary rituals.

Use the Advanced Search in eHRAF Archaeology to search for burials associated with individuals who had special status and prestige.  Select five traditions from five regions and briefly describe the references made to the status of the deceased.  If given, include details such as the kind of grave goods (e.g., knives, beads, pottery), occupation of the individual (e.g. warrior, craftsman, ruler), age of the deceased, presence of human sacrifice, etc.

Instructions: Use http://ehrafarchaeology.yale.edu to link to the eHRAF Archaeology. Use Advanced Search to search for “Status, Role, and Prestige” and “Burial Practices and Funerals” or “Special Burial Practices and Funerals.” The eHRAF Search Examples and Methodology section at the HRAF home page shows search queries in Advanced Search.