Death Rituals, Social Order and the Archaeology of Immortality in the Ancient World by Colin Renfrew, Michael J Boyd, and Iain Morley (eds)

Bookended by Man Booker Prize winner Ben Okri, this collection begins with his poem, concludes with his essay, includes a reference to Damien Hirst’s pickled shark The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, and follows a conference called Death shall have no dominion, the title of a Dylan Thomas poem. Such literary and artistic references are apt: this erudite collection of 27 papers contributed by leading archaeologists and prehistorians examines the concept of death in past societies, and assesses how surviving prehistoric material culture reflects the rituals associated with death and the human response to the idea of mortality – and immortality.

The writers explore mortuary practices, early burials, representations of deities, and ancestral memory in a comprehensive and wide-ranging study, from hunter-gatherers of south-east Asia, who used ritual to recognise kinship and establish status within the community, or Mycenaeans who conceived of death as a two-stage process (the newly dead as individuals, and the long dead as an amorphous ancestral group), to the Maya who defleshed heads, and whose gods and ancestors resided on ‘Flower Mountain’. By bringing together so many diverse societies, united by the commonality of death, the authors examine the material to consider the metaphysical, and explore the role ritual played in the establishment of hierarchical society.

Review by Caitlin McCall

Death Rituals, Social Order and the Archaeology of Immortality in the Ancient World by Colin Renfrew, Michael J Boyd, and Iain Morley (eds) is published by Cambridge University Press (ISBN 978-1107082731)

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