Monday, March 28, 2011

Grave Goods and Rituals

I had to attend a family funeral last week, and as I attended the various services and family functions, I was reminded how the rituals involved with funeral practices in modern times have parallels in early history.

In the pre-Christian era, it was customary to place worldly goods alongside the body of the deceased as he or she was buried. This practice extends back to Egyptian pharoahs and ancient times, as well as into the Medieval period. Sending your loved one from this earthly world into the next (whatever place your belief system thought that might be) without that individual's belongings was unthinkable. A warrior needed his weapons, the deceased must have clothing and their items of personal adornment to be presentable in the next life, and everyone had to have valuables and coin to pay Charon for the trip. It's because of these types of burials that we have some of the artifacts from the earliest periods of history.

For example, look at this picture of grave goods found in a late Roman burial in Boscombe Down, Wiltshire, Wessex. Two glass vessels were found among the objects in the grave, and they are intact. Much more recently, a Roman mosaic bowl was found, not intact, but entirely restorable with all its pieces. In the Merovingian culture, burial with goods was common, and we see glass vessels placed at the feet of the deceased, sometimes with food or liquids inside. In fact, the Merovingians were notorious for rich collections of grave goods, and many of the burial sites included glass vessels. Historians are thrilled to be able to find intact glass objects in this manner. Later-period people did not have so much focus on interring goods with the deceased, and so even though glass became more common and its use more widespread over the centuries, we have far fewer intact or whole examples. Glass breaks!

Of course, in addition to vessels, people were buried with other glass objects, most commonly glass beads. As in this find, often the number and type of glass beads is stunning.

The Pagan Lady's Necklace circa 950AD
found on the Isle of Man in 1984
glass and stone beads

Most of what we know about early glass use is because of burial sites unearthed in modern times. I always find it interesting as to what was chosen to be placed with a society's dead.

As I recall the funeral I just attended, in which photographs, a rosary, some jewelry, and other items of personal significance were placed in the casket of my family member, I think about why we still do that in this day and age. These days, in my family, we don't really believe that coins are needed to pay Charon, or that my beloved uncle will use the rosary or need his wedding ring or look at the photographs, but we do it because we want to acknowledge the significance of his life. I believe that people throughout history wanted to make that acknowledgement for their dead as well, which is why we find so many interesting things among the deceased members of ancient societies. It helps us feel as though we are 'doing something' in the face of a terrible event -- and that desire is basic human nature, no matter the century.

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