Midnight Special

I spent most of Wednesday this week on the train. I am an external examiner at the University of Worcester, which means I need to attend their exam boards and report on whether they are marking fairly and properly. Preston to Worcester and back typically involves at least six different trains in a day. Had we had the meeting a few weeks earlier I would have needed a boat too. There were glum-looking men in green fleeces poking at the track on Worcester racecourse which had obviously only just emerged from the depths. However, all this time in transit was a great opportunity to actually get some reading done.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACave burials, like this bit of a foot from George Rock Shelter at Goldsland, were probably part of a wider British Neolithic phenomena of similar burials in monuments like chambered tombs. All of these burials share some characteristics. They usually involve more than one body in the same place and the bones of different people have usually become mixed up together. This pattern suggests that burial in the Neolithic was quite a long, drawn out process and, as part of trying to understand why that might be, I have been looking at ethnographic accounts from different societies around the world. On Wednesday, in particular, I managed to read the whole of a fascinating book by Peter Metcalf and Richard Huntington called Celebrations of Death (which is now on the reading list too).

They looked at death rituals from many different societies which are linked by having different stages to the burial. These stages can be anything from three months to several years apart. The important similarity here is that the dead have to have become skeletons before it is right to put them in their final grave. Metcalf and Huntington argue that multi-stage rites like these are usually linked to what people believe about how you die. Looking at examples from Madagascar and Indonesia, they describe how people there believe that death is an extended process. The soul of the dead person needs time to be freed from its body and needs help and encouragement to travel to the afterlife.

For groups like the Berawan of Borneo then the point when you stop breathing is only the beginning of death. At that point you are only mostly dead (and, as Billy Crystal said in The Princess Bride, mostly dead is a little bit alive). The Berawan believe that at this point the soul starts to wander away from the body. Their extended burial rites work to stop it coming back into the decaying body to create something like a zombie, but also to guide and encourage the spirit on a canoe trip up-river to the land where the spirits live.

Especially interesting from our point of view are the Toradja of the Celebes and the Bara of southern Madagascar, who both have a version of this kind of burial which uses caves. The Toradja have their corpses guarded by a slave in a specially built hut until they have become skeletons. Every five years or so they then hold a mass re-burial ceremony where all the dead who are ready are gathered up and put in ancestral caves. The Bara use their caves both as the place to expose the recently dead and the place of final burial. But, like the Toradja, they have ceremonies separated by years between putting the (mostly) dead in the cave and sorting out the skeletons for final burial in family groups.

Metcalf and Huntington, as social anthropologists, are most interested in the common beliefs that underlie all these similar burials. For me, one of the interesting differences is between those burials where time and nature are left to get on with the process of separating the bones and spirit from the flesh and the ones where living people are much more actively involved in breaking up the body quickly. I suspect both kinds of burial could have happened in British Neolithic caves, depending on how much assistance the dead were thought to need on their trip from dying to final death.



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