OK, before I begin, I had as many entries to the contest as prize packets. Which is cool — everyone wins — but I don’t want people to think that they only won for that reason! I really liked all of the entries. I don’t know if I can pick a grand prize winner, so I’m just going to spread them out evenly. Watch this space for the actual banners.
Anyway, with the admin out of the way, let’s talk about burials. Obviously, this is a subject near and dear to my heart, because a) I spent the better part of a decade thinking about burials like every day, and I still think about them quite a lot, and b) burials are way more interesting to most people than most other archaeological topics. You tell someone about the domestication of wheat (or whatever), chances are they’re probably not too excited. But a plastered skull, that’s some shit.
Now, in my period, the middle ages, you get some odd stuff. For instance, hoity-toity types like the house of Habsburg-Lorraine in the late middle ages and post-medieval period had a lot of commitments. They needed to show their connection to several different churches, monastic orders, you name it. The solution was ingenious.
When a Habsburg died, he or she was eviscerated. The heart was put in one urn, the intestines in the other and the eviscerated body in a coffin. The deceased was then buried in three different places, spreading the royal patronage around a bit and encouraging pilgrimage. It’s an extreme example, but that kind of thing was not uncommon throughout the medieval period. In this case it went on well into the modern era. They mixed it up a bit, too, in a complex pattern of who was excluded from where that is detailed in a fascinating article by Estella Weiss-Krejci. For instance, the body of Habsburg wife Henrietta of Nassau-Weilburg (d. 1829) is buried in the main vault — and so are her entrails and heart, which should usually have been sent to different churches. Henrietta’s body was included in the family vault, but her Protestant innards weren’t welcome in the other churches.
They also left out the guy who assassinated a close relative. Fair enough.
But to achieve true creep-power overload, let’s go back — way back — to the origins of human civilisation. Let’s take a look at some skulls from Jericho:
Holes filled in, eyes replaced with shells … that is a pretty fucked-up ancestral memento to want to keep in your house. Here are some other examples from a site in Israel:
Look at the shifty expression that guy on the left is wearing.
I don’t have a good image of this but there’s a burial from some Neolithic site of a woman cradling one of these goddamn things, looking into its fakey dead eyes for all eternity. I think the idea is that your grief over your dead relative will be driven out by the stark nightmare of her burial?
But then again, they may not be relatives. At Catalhoyuk in Turkey, burials under the floors of houses were long presumed to be dead ancestors. Creepy, but you get the idea — they are the “foundations” of the house or whatever. Observe:
Only they may not be ancestors after all. An article in 2011 pointed out that there isn’t really any evidence from the skeletons that the people buried under the floors were related to each other. The authors suggest that this means there was some other principle of association going on here other than boring old biological kinship, like the house itself was some kind of family unit. But that is putting quite a brave face on it, surely. Maybe the basis for a family’s success in Catalhoyuk was the collection of murder victims they hid under their floors.