Communications | Posters | Back to the Convention | Bibliography

Problem definition

Since its origin archaeology has always been more or less perceived in capturing - at least superficially, and often with interpretive ritualistic or ethnic-cultural excesses - some macroscopic demonstrations of funerary treatments considered deviant, such as, for example, localization of the deceased in urban environments with or without formal deposition (as in the case of human skeletal remains found in wells, caves or in other situations, apparently without any funeral coding), the practice of burial of corpses in the prone position or abnormally contracted, the absence/removal/intentional relocation of skeletal parts with peculiar symbolic importance as the skull, the use of special devices for the immobilization of the deceased, the mass graves related to war or pandemics, human sacrifices, capital punishments etc.

What’s new on the epistemological level, therefore, isn’t in itself the identification of the deceased and/or abnormal or deviant burials, but the methodological and theoretical systematization of their recognition and their interpretation (see on these issues Rittershofer 1997, Murphy 2008, Sepolti tra i vivi 2008, Sepolture anomale 2010).

From a purely sociological level, the comparison with the “deviance” and, more generally, with the “perception of deviance” presumes the existence of a collective representation coded as “normal”, possible only within communities relatively complex, able, for example, to process a net conceptual opposition between urban space and funerary space and, at the same time, to define rules and social roles through which, in a certain way, could determine the existence of a destiny of marginalization (in life and/or death) or, even, to inflict or cause death itself, in accordance to shared beliefs or to restore the “order” violated by behavior or by a physical or mental condition considered unusual.

In recent years, in terms of archaeological hermeneutics, the refinement of excavation methods and analysis - particularly through the bio-archeology and archaeo-thanatology (Duday 2006) - combined with the results of the relativistic, semiotic and contextualizing approach to the post-processual critics have allowed to seize not only the extreme symbolic permeability of funeral gesture but also all its anomalies and exceptions, from the psychological and behavioral “denial” of grief to the extreme annihilation of the material corpses in the “non burial” and in his real “refusal-waste”.

The anthropological roots of this attitude were really well defined by A. Favole, especially for those civilizations in which, based on funeral gestures codified and shared, the denial of burial is set up as a discriminating choice, closely linked to the social features, identity features, or even biological features of deceased, in accordance with its age, sex, religion, ethnic origin, health, ethical or mental condition and, in general, to all those attributes that make him “different” compared with prevailing sentiment of humanity\civilization: «Historically and ethnographically, the “corpse rejection” seems reserved for individuals who are situated outside the boundaries of humanity, or at least of the community: as bearers of a radical ethnic difference, as in cases of genocide; since they were considered unrelated to civil or religious society, as in the case of “executed/put to death”, heretics and suicides in the Middle Ages or even insane people and criminals in the modern age, when their corpses provide the raw material for anatomical studies [...]; and yet, as they still aren’t part of humanity in the proper sense, as in the case of uninitiated children. In all these situations, the corpses can be treated as garbage, as such, are abandoned, thrown away, recycled, sold. The rejection seems to be defined in short as the exception that proves the rule: where there is full allocation of humanitas to an individual, the attention to remains is configured as an absolute necessity. Vice versa, the refusal of the corpses appears as an escape, often very dangerous, from the boundaries of humanity”.(Favole 2003, p. 30).

A discriminatory funeral treatment configures, therefore, as such when the identified individual is considered extraneous to the community and, therefore, also to its “ritual mechanisms”. This finding requires, of course, further contextualization, in order to, on one hand, define habitus of social reality in question and, on other hand, to identify ritual recurrences that distinguish within that same civilization burial treatment of the dead, to check, for example, if their assimilation to what is generally tend to consider (and, often, scornfully) as a “waste” actually can be understood as a punitive or if, instead, should rather be considered practice ritually codified and accepted, as they were in the past decades highlighted in parallel by the anthropological and archaeological research, focusing on the evolution of the concept of “waste/scrap/fragment” and its progressive making relative over time. The interpreter acts therefore on at least two different levels, the combination of which is the only effective method to identify any deviations from normal behavior and, possibly, to try to explain its reasons.

Sometimes these two levels may coincide, therefore, to a differenced treatment corresponds the more or less specular treatment in death. Clearly, for those civilizations without writing or alternative sources to those archaeological, funeral dimension is the only one that enables access in a sufficiently perspicuous manner even in everyday ambit. On this last point focuses the interpretive debate between a processual approach typically isomorphic and the postprocessual one that tends to be relativizing. If, however, the analysis focuses only on the ambit of death, the whole matter is altogether less random, leaving on a higher level of decoding any transposition even in the everyday ambit of an archaeologically deviant attitude and/or ethnographically found in the funeral ambit. All this, of course, on condition to don’t deduce from practices or from recurring funeral customs in our society the reference points for the identification of “distinction” or “deviance” in communities of the past.

The ability, in this case also, consists in the exact recomposition of the “stratigraphy” of gestures and in the recognition of their intentionality. If, in fact, is quite clear the voluntary nature that may be hiding in a secondary deposition like a cremation (where it is, of course, the result of a conscious funeral gesture), is much more difficult to recognize the formative dynamics of a secondary burial, especially if multiple or collective, especially in those cases in which archeology is put in front of an incomplete context, of which is known only the terminal action and of which complexity can be seized only sometimes from time to time.

This applies, of course, even more in those cases where the anomaly predominates the norm and the repetitiveness usually implied to ritual gesture is substantiated by one of its more or less direct inversions, giving rise to what the critics, ultimately, began to define “deviant burial” or “anomalous burial”. But also the key to decoding the “deviance” or the actual absence of intention of a formal deposition passes, necessarily, through the identification of the presence or absence of “gestures” and the reconstruction of their unequivocal randomness or voluntariness: “Le geste funéraire n’est que la traduction du matérielle rite, et le geste nous est seul accessible.” (Duday et Alii 1990, p. 44).

One of the objectives on which this session focuses is, therefore, to try to open the way to greater critical awareness about one of the most complex funerary archeology aspects, the ones in which the codes of the ritual are intentionally placed to discussion and logics that usually govern the dynamics of death appear reversed or, more or less deliberately, ignored. As mentioned, these conditions may give rise to various possible forms of “deviance”, often interrelated, each of them, which - especially in the last decade - has been a subject of specific insights from specific areas of study, aimed to explore the ways in which such atypicality was perceived and, more or less as a result, reflected in the burial in the circumstances of the death, depending on the characteristics of the deceased or on those of the ritual. (Nizzo 2015).

The “anomaly” of the treatment, in fact, could have been totally released from the identity and condition of the dead, as a result of accidental external factors (war, epidemics, homicides, accidents, diseases etc.), that would dismantle the logic of ritual giving place, for necessity or, also, by choice, to abnormal behavior (the “atypical death”).

In the second case the “anomaly” may isomorphically distinguish the deceased in life as in death (“atypical deceased”, due to a series of innate characteristics that, in the eyes of the community, made him “different”, making him “discriminated” also in the funeral dimension; in other cases, however, this perception could have been limited to the terminal stages of life, for the appearance of “diversifying” connotations such as excluding him, conceptually and materially, from the community, up to decree the killing; a circumstance, the last one, which could also take place in contexts with sacred connotations and could have allow them to assimilate the victim to a “scapegoat”.

The final category is the one in which the features of the anomaly are mainly absorbed by the ritual (“atypical ritual”), in often explicit forms and, however, presuming the existence of a “deviant ritual” obviously mortifying, connected to beliefs and superstitions that often could act outside of the formalism of the funeral ceremony, resulting in interventions after the deposition aimed at suppressing the nefarious influence of the dead. In many cases the necrophoby that distinguished them could have been related to common factors of these two above mentioned categories, but there are episodes in which such attitudes are completely separated from the specific characteristics of deceased or of his death, to find explanation in fear exerted by death itself and taphonomic phenomena associated to it, forcing the survivors to macabre prophylactic interventions on the corpse. In this case, even if a bit forcibly, can also fit in all those circumstances of “noise\intervention” extraneous to the mechanisms encoded by the funerary ritual, such as, for example, necromancy, necrophilia and, in general, all those forms “dialogue/interaction” with the deceased that diverge from customs encoded in the societies - subjects of this specific observation.