All that Glitters is Not Gold: New Approaches to Sumptuous Burials Between Western Europe and the Eurasian Steppe

Posted on March 17, 2017


For your weekend viewing pleasure here is a session we recorded at the EAA conference on all that glitters:

Ostentatious burials remain the primary means by which we understand socio-economic structures and elite/non-elite binary identity formations. Seemingly, such burials lend themselves to easier modes of quantification as well as qualification given their ‘obvious’ connections between numbers, types, and placement of grave goods as well as treatment and/or modification of the deceased individual’s body with status. In addition, the construction and use of large burial mounds (tumuli or kurgan in regional nomenclature) are also often taken at surface value as signaling elevated status and political importance among local and possibly regional communities, with the result being single (often anomalous) mounds being used to support ideas of regional systems of (possibly) institutionalized social inequalities. The focus of this session is to consider alternative theoretical frameworks and methodologies that have great potential to tease out more nuanced information regarding the mortuary practices from Western Europe to the Eurasian steppe. In particular, we are interested in combinations of vibrant theoretical frameworks and robust methodologies, including analyses such as isotopic, metallographic, GIS-based, ceramic, and multivariate statistics to name only a few. Ultimately, we seek not to necessarily overturn inferences regarding ostentatious burials and elite status. Rather we encourage session participants to more critically interrogate how these formulations are arrived at and what new
information can be gleaned from burials and burial mounds that have already been excavated and analyzed.

Author – Dr. Fern ndez-Götz, Manuel, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, United Kingdom (Presenting author)
Co-author(s) – Prof. Johnson, James, University of Chicago, Chicago, United States of America
Keywords: Sumptuous Burials, Identity, Power, Performance

Is it gold that matters? The role of sumptuous burials of women in Bronze and Iron Age Europe Author – Prof. Dr. Metzner-Nebelsick, Carola, LMU Munich, Munich, Germany (Presenting author)
Keywords: sumptuous burials of women Bronze Age Iron Age

Ostentatious burials are often exclusively seen within a close typo-chronological framework in time-space related cultural units. Thus archaeologists often analyze sumptuous graves in relation to burials of seemingly lesser importance from the same cultural unit either in order to reconstruct social hierarchies or in order to distinguish specific cultural traits.
In these traditional analyses of ostentatious burials female graves have played little or no role. Analyses which have dealt with female graves dating between the 2nd and first half of the 1st millennium BC have mainly concentrated on gender specific topics such as the importance of costume in relationship to age-groups, regional identities and social standing. Sumptuous female graves are however rarely themetized systematically.
In this paper I will examine ostentatious graves of women in a wide chronological as well as geographical scope in order to ask under which conditions sumptuous female burials occur, how they relate to contemporary male burials in quantitative as well as qualitative aspects and why in some cases they seem to be absent in the archaeological record? I will focus on case studies ranging from the Early Bronze Age in western and Central Europe, the late Bronze Age in Central Europe to the early Iron Age between the so-called western Hallstatt Culture and the Scythians princely graves of the east European steppes.

Scarcity and dearness: an obvious link? Elite’s graves (1300-300 BC) in north-alpine world

Author – Dr. Trémeaud, Caroline, UMR 8215 Trajectoires, LYON, France (Presenting author)
Keywords: Bronze and Iron Ages, Hierarchies, Methods

During the Late Bronze Age to La T ne B, in north-alpine societies, we see a multiplication of elite’s graves. These ones, characterized by an impressive funerary hoarding and so called “princely graves” ask a lot of questions about hierarchisation, status of these individuals and social structures. These questions are supported by a key issue: how deal with the funerary data to express the wealth notion?
Such an approach needs to take into account the difficulties to estimates values. In preliterate societies, emic approach is not possible; the etic approach is the only one. Thus we need to develop methodological tools in order to class graves against each other.
The focus of my presentation will be to present a methodology developed during my PhD of ranking funerary data, so as to detect social structures. This work is based on a database from more than 1000 graves with 721 elite’s graves, from Late Bronze Age to La T ne B, spread over north-eastern France, southern Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Bohemia, which allows multivariate statistics.
The ranking approach depends on a method of weighting graves, to reveal wealth and characterize graves to each other.
This method necessitates estimating value of each grave (grave good but also architecture and location), and so applying an emic framework to funerary data. I want to have a critical look of this analysis grid used to value graves, in order to see the validity and the impact on multivariate statistics developed after.
In fact this method shows possibilities for looking beyond the binary understanding of societies (elite vs. non elite). These more forensic, qualitative approaches make it possible especially to develop a gender approach and a characterization of social structures and their evolution on a long term perspective.

(Inter)regional identities – performance in EIA sumptious burials of the Low Countries

Author – Dr. Schumann, Robert, University of Hamburg, Hamburg, Germany (Presenting author)
Co-author(s) – Van der Vaart-Verschoof, Sasja, Leiden University, Leiden, Netherlands
Keywords: Early Iron Age, Low Countries, Sumptious Graves

The emergence of the lavish burials known as Hallstatt chieftains’ or princely graves reflects one of the most noteworthy developments in Early Iron Age Europe. These elaborate elite burials of the Hallstatt C period contain beautiful weaponry, bronze vessels and elaborately decorated wagons and horse-gear and are found primarily in Southern Germany and Bohemia. There is, however, also a small cluster of these burials in the Low Countries. These Dutch and Belgian burials contain many of the same objects, all imports from the Hallstatt Culture in Central Europe. New finds and research, including the comprehensive study of all the Dutch and Belgian burials offer new insights into those graves. The elite burials of the Low Countries not only contain far more Central European ‘princely’ paraphernalia than thought, they also appear to contain high-quality items, challenging the established interpretation of these burials being feeble derivatives. These imported items, however, appear to have been recontextualized in a regionally specific manner through a destructive burial practice that involved the transformation of both the dead and their grave goods through fire, manipulation and fragmentation.
While the burial rituals seem to differ between the Hallstatt Culture and the Low Countries, detailed examination of rituals in both areas shows similarities as well. The objects interred in these ostentatious graves of the early Hallstatt Period in the Low Countries and those of the early Hallstatt Culture in southern Germany, western Austria and Bohemia also testify large-scale contacts as well as a potentially increasing social differentiation (or at least its representation in burials). The relationships that must have existed between these and other areas in the early Hallstatt period can be addressed and considered on a large scale. In this paper we present the possibilities of analyses by looking at the ostentatious burials from the Low Countries both from the regional and the international perspective, an approach that leads to a much better understanding of the performance of those exceptional burials.

The Grave’s A Not-So-Private Place: Elite Multiple Burials in Early Iron Age West-Central Europe

Author – Prof. Arnold, Bettina, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Shorewood WI, United States of America
Co-author(s) – Fernandez Goetz, Manuel, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, United Kingdom (Presenting author)
Keywords: Iron Age, mortuary analysis, multiple burials

In his 1984 survey of multiple burials in prehistoric Europe Claus Oeftiger noted that burials containing more than one individual are frequently found in richly outfitted chamber graves. The sample of multiple burials has expanded significantly in the intervening years and it may be time to revisit this mortuary category in light of new evidence. While most multiple burials contain two adults, often a female and a male, male/male, female/female and male/child or female/child combinations are also known. These configurations have traditionally been interpreted as reflecting familial relationships but recently excavated burials indicate that more complex associations for this category of burial are likely. We argue that the early Iron Age elite multiple burial category should be re-evaluated with reference to ethnographic anaology, archaeological evidence from other areas of westcentral Europe, and recent burials excavated in the vicinity of the early Iron Age Heuneburg hillfort.

Discernable Traces in Textil Archaeology

Author – Dr. Banck-Burgess, Johanna, Landesamt für Denkmalpflege, Esslingen, Germany (Presenting author)
Keywords: mortuary ceremonies, princely grave Hochdorf-Eberdingen, Textile Archaeology

The uniqueness of the late Hallstatt-period textile assemblage from the princely grave at Eberdingen-Hochdorf (SW-Germany) is not limited to its highlighting textile manufacturing as an economic focus in this region, providing differentiated insights into burial customs, the sequences of mortuary ceremonies or insights into concepts about the afterlife.It is relevant that this finds assemblage demonstrates that textiles can only function as indicators of socio-economic structures when they are considered within their archaeological context. This means that conclusions, based on isolated observations of details of manufacturing technique but disregarding the context, remain of limited value with regard to contents and may even be questionable. Deriving from the function of the textiles in the grave the question is not only for what and with which intention this function was associated, but also whether it is at all sensible to distinguish between burial textiles and the textiles of the living.

Barbarian chief’s “secret” burials in the forest-steppe zone of Eastern Europe

Author – Doctor Shcheglova, Olga, Insitute for the History of the Material Culture, St. Petersburg, Russian Federation (Presenting author)
Co-author(s) – Radush, Oleg, Institute of Archaeology RAS, Moscow, Russian Federation
Keywords: burials, prestigious gold objects, Great Migration period, sumptuous complexes, kings and military leaders

By the beginning of the Great Migration period Chernyakhov archaeological culture (its last stage) was spread in the left bank of the Dnieper in forest-steppe zone. At the same time (periods D1 and D2 European chronology — 360 / 370-440 / 450’s. AD) on the same area occur several extremely rich sumptuous complexes consisting of prestigious gold objects (brooches, bracelets, neck-rings), the Byzantine silverware production, gold-embroidered garments, ceremonial weapons and horse harness. Findings of individual objects belonging to a prestigious culture of the time are known too. These complexes are not associated with burial grounds of Chernyakhov culture. They were found by chance and were considered hoards. Only one of them (Bol’shoy Kamenetz) was published by L.A. Matsulevich in 1934. The study how complexes have been discovered reveals that they are the burials. In Bol’shoy Kamenetz burial was in a stone crypt, built at the base of a high bank of a creek, which flows into the river Sudzha. Mapping of all finds indicates their exclusive relationship with the sources of large creeks flowing in deep canyons and at the same time associated with the watersheds of river systems. Discussed sumptuous complexes are very different from the burials of the Chernyakhov culture, even at it’s highest level examples. There are simple common explanations for this difference:1.”Chronological”, when the sumptuous burials attributed to later Hun period (the period D3, ie, 450-470 / 480’s AD), when the Chernyakhov culture no longer exists. 2.”Ethnic.”Both of these explanations are not satisfactory: 1. Late burials at Chernyakhov cemeteries in the area between the Dnieper and Don rivers dated to stages D1 and D2 of European chronology. The presence of glass cups (as set for the feast) is a feature that distinguishes prestigious burial of odinary cemeteries. 2. There are no grounds for attributing elite single burials to the Hun’s neither by ritual, nor by the inventory. Prestigious items belong to a common in Hunnic time polychrome decorations. Rather we can speak about a direct links with the Late Antique Bosporus whence come the closest analogues of prestigious weapons, harness and silver vessels.Discussed finds belong to the common European horizon of burials of the nobility, the leaders of the barbarian kingdoms, which arose at the beginning of the Great Migration period on the periphery of the ancient world. Often death caught up with kings and military leaders of the Great Migrations in the territory and the environment in which they had no historical roots, nor stable relations. Their tombs and grave structures are unlikely to be perceived as a place of worship and a landmark of the traditional movement. Perhaps this explains the absence of grave structures and the great efforts spent on to hide the burials of high-level persons, moving it beyond the ordinary general cemetery in protected, perhaps a sacred place. The exceptional volume and value of inventory corresponds to the rank of the deceased in his lifetime. The concept of “center of power” is applicapable to the single “princes” and “military chiefs” burials.

Commoners and Elites in Southeast Kazakhstan: Kurgans and Settlements of the Iron Age society

Author – Dr. Chang, Claudia, Sweet Briar College, Sweet Briar, United States of America (Presenting author)
Co-author(s) – Tourtellotte, Perry, Sweet Briar College, Sweet Briar, United States of America

The spatial distribution of Iron Age kurgan and settlement sites from the Talgar alluvial fan (ca. 550 sq km) derived from survey reconnaissance and Soviet period site inventories indicates the presence of both commoner graves and elite kurgan burials. The GIS database of the Talgar sites also includes valuable information such as the natural hydrological system, dated geological terraces, and other important topographic features. Our goal is to model a socio-natural system that describes the Iron Age socio-economic agro-pastoral system and its demographic components. In addition to understanding the relationship between the natural-physical landscape and a mortuary and settlement landscape, we also wish to set the foundation for understanding social hierarchy and the nature of commoner-elite relations.
This mortuary landscape, often robbed in antiquity and destroyed by Soviet agriculture, lacks information on individual burial inventories or skeletal material. Therefore our model relies upon kurgan size dimensions, locations, and density counts in order to model the ancient demography of the Talgar region and its surrounding environs. Future research in Talgar and neighbouring alluvial fans will test demographic models for: (1) population pressure on farming and herding resources; (2) territorial boundaries that define socio-political units within nomadic confederacies; and (3) the rise of social hierarchy within circumscribed regions such as the Talgar fan and its surrounding areas.
By focusing upon landscape features, burial mounds and graves as demographic indicators, new approaches can be developed for modeling changing social landscapes across a branch of the Silk route. This circumscribed region can serve as the first step for building a regional settlement system that incorporates demography, social hierarchy, political organization of territories, and ideological and ritual landscapes that cross-cut diverse regions through an aesthetic known as ‘animal-style’ art.

Miniaturization in the Production of Funerary Aesthetics in the Pontic Iron Age, ca. 600 – 300 BC

Author – Dr. Johnson, James, University of Chicago, Chicago, United States of America (Presenting author)
Keywords: Aesthetics, Burials, Iron Age

Funerary performances, including processions, construction of burial mounds, and the deposition of bodies and grave goods, are the primary means by which Iron Age social structure continues to be investigated and inferred. However, the scholarly focus on single massive burial mounds and the amount of interred grave goods, such as found at Alexandropol or Solokha in presentday south-central Ukraine, skew our sense of the importance of the ‘produced’ nature of funerary performance and aesthetics in favor of static (and more easily quantifiable) monumental and ostentatious displays. Few studies of Eurasian Iron Age mortuary practices critically explore how a different approach utilizing the lens of production (in a perfomative/theatrical sense) might highlight often hidden political facets of burial in Iron Age contents, as well as more broadly.
I draw upon Susan Stewarts’ (2007) notion of the ‘remarkable’ (elements of identification chosen to be indexical of certain periods and events assigned to individuals) to demonstrate how burials are acts steeped in political intentionality and manifest power relations. I contend that funerary performances, including audience participation, were miniaturized sensory, and perhaps more importantly sensual, engagements carefully crafted in grander scale cosmologies of meaning that were themselves crucial constituents of social and political life in the Pontic Iron Age, ca. 700 – 300 BCE. During the course of this presentation, I explore the remarkable nature of Pontic Iron Age funerary performances through a careful diassembling and reassembling of grave good assemblages, mound construction, and mortuary landscapes. Utilizing data gleaned from a modest population of mounds and burials from across south-central Ukraine, I focus in particular on how burials and funerary activities were produced and intentionally manipulated as means to legitimize, and reinforce, the cosmological and social ordering of Pontic Iron Age communities through carefully designed and produced aesthetic displays.


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