Mortuary archaeology

Authored by: Zoë Crossland , J. Suzi Wilson

The Routledge Companion to Death and Dying

Print publication date:  May  2017
Online publication date:  May  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138852075
eBook ISBN: 9781315723747
Adobe ISBN:


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To be human, it seems, is to dispose of deceased kin with care, and to mourn and commemorate their passing. The emergence of mortuary ritual therefore is often understood to define the very boundaries of being human. Here the issue at debate is whether formal interment of the dead emerged with the appearance of anatomically modern and/or cognitively modern Homo sapiens, and whether there is evidence of postmortem practices among other hominins. If so, what does it reveal about our evolutionary history and about what it is to be human? Below we sketch out the contours of what is known about early mortuary practice, and the very different ways in which it developed. We then explore the categorical boundaries that are formed and maintained through mortuary treatment, both within archaeological accounts of human history and by archaeological practice itself.

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