Blog Post #67: Beyond the Grave with Melissa S. Cradic

For Halloween month, our blog posts focus on the presence of the dead among us, such as vampires, zombies, ancestors, and other types of Undead. Our authors specialize in mortuary practices across Greece, the Levant, and Mesopotamia. While the Undead are often treated superficially in popular culture, these researchers press us to think about the deeper social and spiritual meanings behind ancient beliefs and practices that attempt to manage the persistent presence of the dead amongst the living


Like many archaeologists, my research path has been shaped by finds that I have encountered during fieldwork. In my case, the field is mortuary archaeology with a special focus on the ancient Middle East and Mediterranean. In mortuary archaeology, typically archaeologists do not go out looking for burials given the many cultural sensitivities and legal restrictions that apply to excavating human remains, even those from antiquity (Nagar 2002; Nilsson Stutz 2012, 2013; Fletcher et al., eds. 2014; Giesen ed. 2014; Leshem 2015; Sulimani and Kletter 2017; Meloche et al. eds, 2021). Sometimes it is not even clear that a particular context is a human burial until the skeletal remains start to be exposed. These chance finds, like other archaeological materials and contexts, require slow, respectful, and careful treatment including scrutiny of contexts in order to make sense of the deposition. 

The site of Tel Megiddo sits atop a small grassy hill. There are some trees to one side of it, and crops in the background.
Fig. 1 Aerial photo of Tel Megiddo (2005). Avram Graicier / Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribute-Share Alike 3.0 Unported. 15 April 2011. 

Many of the graves that I have excavated at my main field site, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Tel Megiddo in northern Israel (Figure 1), are called multiple-successive inhumations. This term means that the burials—in this case, constructed chamber tombs—contained the remains of up to several dozen individuals who were deposited sequentially over a long period of time, often close to a period of a hundred years (Cradic 2017, 2018, 2022). Because the burials were re-opened and disturbed for long periods of use in antiquity, the contexts can be intermixed and are therefore challenging to interpret. Traditional interpretations of these kinds of inhumations tend to be explained in one of three main ways. First, these co-mingling contexts are explained as the result of simply “pushing aside” of the previously interred remains in order to make room for the new individuals during their interment. Alternatively, disturbance may be interpreted as evidence of looting or of other human or natural disturbance that occurred in antiquity. Finally, disturbance may be considered disrespectful, indicating a kind of aberration or deviant burial.


None of these explanations are satisfactory without close analysis of the contexts themselves. I apply an approach called burial taphonomy (also referred to as “archaeothanatology”) that applies close contextual analysis of the environmental and depositional conditions of burials to determine how, when, and how many times that graves were disturbed. The primary goal of this analysis is to differentiate between anthropogenic disturbances—meaning intentional human interventions—and natural disturbances from forces like bioturbation (animal digging, insects, plant roots), erosion, water action and flooding, or any other environmental cause (Duday 2006, 2009; Bello and Andrews 2006; Knüsel and Robb 2016; Schotsman et al., eds. 2017). The results of the taphonomic study then provide a starting point for posing deeper questions about the cultural meanings, practices, and even sensory experiences of disposing, disturbing, and interacting with the dead at different stages after burial.

As a field archaeologist and mortuary archaeologist, my goal is to make sense of the big picture and to frame it within the context of the ancient Middle East. Beyond analyzing the stratigraphy, depositional contexts, burial taphonomy, and material culture inside the burials, the field datasets in my research integrate many specialist fields. This multidisciplinary approach requires close collaboration with bioanthropologists, paleoethnobotanists, zooarchaeologists, and archaeologists who specialize in exact sciences approaches including isotopic analysis, ancient DNA, the analysis of the compositions of materials like metals and chemical residues of substances inside ceramic vessels. For example, recent findings from Megiddo demonstrate the presence of chemical signatures of vanilla and of psychoactive substances like opiates inside ceramic vessels found in tombs contexts, opening new avenues for research into sensory environments of mortuary rituals (Linares et al. 2019; Namdar 2022; Cradic 2021).  

Together, these different strands of evidence build a detailed story of who the deceased individuals were in life, such as their biological age and sex, where they grew up, what they ate, and their relative health and wealth status; how their bodies were treated after death and burial; how they may have been commemorated at their burial sites; and their genetic and social relationships to each other. The holistic approach to disparate sets of evidence means that there are always exciting results that keep this work fascinating and from which I can build a coherent, data-driven narrative about these individuals’ lives and afterlives. For some of these dead, both the archaeological evidence and ancient textual sources indicate that their afterlives may have included a social transformation into a supernatural entity after burial, such as an ancestor or ghost (Cradic 2021, 2022).  

The Dead Amongst the Living 

Ghosts, demons, spirits, and ancestors exist across many cultures and global contexts, including in the ancient world. Assyriologist Irving Finkel (2021), for example, recently published a new book titled The First Ghosts: Most Ancient of Legacies that chronicles some of the earliest attestations of the (un)dead in disembodied forms, which emerged in ancient Mesopotamia.   

Ghosts and spirits are closely connected to eschatological ideas about the afterlife, supernatural realm, and its relationship to the earthly world inhabited by humans. Often, the fears and stories created around these kinds of entities involve crossing of otherwise closed boundaries or thresholds that separate the “us” and “them”—the lines that divide the human world from the supernatural one. It may become dangerous when these lines are crossed in either direction. Entities like ghosts may be perceived, received, and interpreted differently across different contexts. They may or may not be considered spooky or creepy. For some, they are simply figments of the imagination while for others they are deeply grounded in material and sensorial realities. 

A stone tomb surrounded by other tombs in a Paris cemetery. It has black metal doors, and a black iron fence surrounding it.
Fig. 2 Tomb in the historic Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris (2017). Pierre-Yves Beaudouin / Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International, 15 November 2017. 

As cultural constructions, ghosts, ancestors, and other forms of the disembodied dead vary widely but may be omnipresent even today, if one looks closely enough at the contexts and meanings of certain sites and landscapes. Their presence may be elicited using metaphor and iconography through the construction of war memorials, museums, and cemeteries (Figure 2). They may even be present, metaphorically or in grounded terms, in physical vestiges of the past like ruins and tells (Figures 3). For example, Hebrew Bible and ancient Near East scholar Matthew Suriano (2012) has argued that the ruins of ancient settlements—what we refer to in archaeology as tells—may have served as conceptual thresholds to the Netherworld because they functioned as liminal spaces in the landscape. Likewise, early “ghost stories” are documented in ancient Greek literature and the “haunted house” trope features in early Christian literature, expressing some aspects of relationships with the (dis)embodied dead in different ancient cultural settings, sometimes as mediated through inhabited or abandoned living spaces (Figure 4; Ruiz Montero 2017; Ogden 2017).

A photo of Tell Barri in Northeast Syria. It is a settlement mound surrounded by an arid landscape.
Figure 3. Abandoned ruins and tell sites, like this one, may have been viewed in the ancient Near East as thresholds to the Netherworld. View of Tell Barri (northeast Syria) (2005). Zoeperkoe / Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 13 September 2009.  

In ancient Mesopotamia, historical sources likewise shed light on relationships between the living and the dead. In this context, the unmoored nature of ghosts, and their lack of accountability, made them dangerous, unpredictable, and feared. They were the revenants who had no identities, no homelands, and most importantly, no families to care for them after death. Their lack of proper burial and/or of proper ongoing care after death prompted these beings to rove the landscape in search of luckless victims who could be harmed by the “hand of the ghost” (Cooper 2009; Sonia 2020: 34-35; Scurlock 2006).  

Dealing with the Undead 

The anonymous nature of ghosts served as a source of anxiety, as described in an incantation to the sun-god:


O Sun God, a terrifying ghost has attached itself to my back for many days, and does not release its hold, It harasses me all day, terrifies me all night, 

Always at hand to hound me, making my hair stand on end, 

Pressing my forehead, making me dizzy,  

Parching my mouth, paralyzing my flesh, drying out my whole body. 

Be it a ghost of someone killed in battle 

Be it a wandering ghost,…  

Drive it from my body, cut it off from my body, remove it from my body!… Remove the sickness of my body, that the one who sees me may sound your praises 

Eradicate the disease of my body! 

I turn to you, grant me life! 

[trans. Foster 2005: 650ff]

A red-figure krater depicts Hades and Persephone in the palace of the underworld.
Fig. 4 Detail view of Apulian red-figure volute krater depicting Hades and Persephone in the Palace of the Underworld, ca. 320 BCE, attributed to the White Sakkos/Saccos Painter; Antikensammlung Kiel, inventory number B 585 (undated). Marcus Cyron, Creative Commons Attribute-Share Alike 3.0 Unported. 15 December 2012.  

This example illustrates that ghosts could be blamed as a supernatural origin of inexplicable misfortune, such as disaster or illness that might befall a person or their house (Bottéro 1992: 283; Harrington 2012: 22-27; Scurlock 2006). In fact, according to Mesopotamian medical compendia, a variety of “ghost-induced” physical and psychological ailments could be attributed to these invisible forces (Scurlock 2006).  

To an ancient Babylonian, these concrete and observable consequences of ghostly encounters showed the potency of the dead as agents who were fully capable of causing physical or material harm. In contrast, the dead who were cared for through burial and commemoration did not threaten the living. Whatever form they took, the dead served as significant sources of meaning-making and social negotiation in the ancient Middle East. Through ancient historical sources and mortuary archaeology, they continue to speak to us today from beyond the grave.

Further Reading 

Bello, S. and P. Andrews. 2006. “The Intrinsic Pattern of Preservation of Human Skeletons and its Influence on the Interpretation of Human Behaviors.” In Social Archaeology of Funerary Remains, ed. R. Gowland and C. Knüsel, 1-13. Studies in Funerary Archaeology 1. Oxford: Oxbow. 

Bottéro, J. 1992. Mesopotamia: Writing, Reasoning, and the Gods. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 

Cradic, M.S. 2017. “Embodiments of Death: The Funerary Sequence and Commemoration in the Bronze Age Levant.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 377: 219- 248. 

Cradic, M.S. 2018. “Residential Burial and Social Memory in the Middle Bronze Age Levant.” Near Eastern Archaeology 81: 191-201. 

Cradic, M.S. 2021. “Sensing the Dead in Household Burials of the Second Millennium BCE.” In The Routledge Handbook of the Senses in the Ancient Near East, ed. K. Neumann and A. Thomason, 402-428. New York: Routledge. 

Cradic, M.S. 2022. “Materializing the Ancestors: Sacred Body Parts and Fragments in the Ancient Near East.” In The Sacred Body: Materializing the Divine through Human Remains in Antiquity, ed. N. Laneri, 86-113. Material Religion in Antiquity (MaReA) 1. Oxford: Oxbow. 

Cooper, J.S. 2009. “Wind and Smoke: Giving Up the Ghost of Enkidu, Comprehending Enkidu’s Ghosts.” In Rethinking Ghosts in World Religions: Behind the Ghastly Smoke, ed. M.-C. Poo, 23-32. Numen Book Series 1; Studies in History of Religions 123. Boston: Brill. 

Duday, H. 2006. “L’Archéothanatologie ou l’Archéologie de la Mort (Archaeothanatology or the Archaeology of Death). In Social Archaeology of Funerary Remains, ed. R. Gowland and C. Knüsel, 30-56. Studies in Funerary Archaeology 1. Oxford: Oxbow. 

Duday, H. 2009. The Archaeology of the Dead: Lectures in Archaeothanatology. Studies in Funerary Archaeology 3. Oxford: Oxbow. 

Finkel, I. 2021. The First Ghosts: Most Ancient of Legacies. London: Hodder and Stoughton.  

Fletcher, A., D. Antoine, and J.D. Hill, eds. 2014. Regarding the Dead: Human Remains in the British Museum. London: The British Museum. 

Foster, B.R. 2005. From Distant Days: Myths, tales, and Poetry of Ancient Mesopotamia. CDL Press, Bethesda, Maryland. 

Giesen, M., ed. 2014. Curating Human Remains: Caring for the Dead in the United Kingdom. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press. 

Harrington, N. 2012. Living with the Dead: Ancestor Worship and Mortuary Ritual in Ancient Egypt. Oakville: Oxbow. 

Knüsel, C. & J. Robb. 2016. “Funerary Taphonomy: An Overview of Goals and Methods.” Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 10: 655-673.  

Lacqueur, T.W. 2015. The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 

Leshem, N. 2015. “‘Over our dead bodies’: Placing Necropolitical Activism.” Political Geography 45: 34-44. 

Linares, V., M.J. Adams, M.S. Cradic, I. Finkelstein, O. Lipschits, M.A.S. Martin, R. Neumann, P.W. Stockhammer, and Y. Gadot. 2019. “First Evidence for Vanillin in the Old World: Its Use as a Mortuary Offering in Middle Bronze Canaan.” Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 23: 77-84. 

Meloche, C.H., L. Spake, and K.L. Nichols, eds. 2014. Working with and for Ancestors: Collaboration in the Care and Study of Ancestral Remains. New York: Routledge. 

Nagar, Y. 2002. “Bone Reburial in Israel: Legal Restrictions and Methodological Implications.” In The Dead and Their Possessions: Repatriation in Principle, Policy and Practice, ed. C. Fforde, J. Hubert, and P. Turnbull, 87-90. New York: Routledge. 

Namdar, D. 2022. Residue Analysis of Three Lamps. In Megiddo VI: The 2010-2014 Seasons. Volume 1, ed. I. Finkelstein and M.A.S. Martin, 394-395. Tel Aviv University Institute of Archaeology Monograph Series 41. Tel Aviv and University Park: Tel Aviv University Press & Eisenbrauns. 

Nilsson Stutz, L.G. 2012. “The Noah Complex and Archaeology in the Holy Land: The Case of the Mamilla Cemetery and the Museum of Tolerance and Human Dignity.” Heritage & Society 5: 221-248. 

Nilsson Stutz, L. 2013. “Contested Burials.” In The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Death and Burial, ed. L. Nilsson Stutz and S. Tarlow, 801-816. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Ogden, D. 2017. “Lies Too Good to Lay To Rest: The Survival of Pagan Ghost Stories in Early Christian Literature.” In Visitors from Beyond the Grave: Ghosts in World Literature, ed. D. Romero-González, I. Muñoz-Gallarte, G. Laguna-Mariscal, 65-80. Coimbra: Coimbra University Press. 

Ruiz Montero, C. 2017. “Ghost Stories in the Greek Novel: A Typological Attempt.” In Visitors from Beyond the Grave: Ghosts in World Literature, ed. D. Romero-González, I. Muñoz- Gallarte, G. Laguna-Mariscal, 19-32. Coimbra: Coimbra University Press. 

Schotsman, E. M.J., N. Márquez-Grant, and S.L. Forbes, eds. 2017. Taphonomy of Human Remains: Forensic Analysis of the Dead and the Depositional Environment. Chichester: Wiley. 

Scurlock, J. 2006. Magico-medical Means of Treating Ghost-Induced Illnesses in Ancient Mesopotamia. Ancient Magic and Divination 3. Leiden: Brill. 

Sonia, K. 2020. Caring for the Dead in Ancient Israel. Atlanta: SBL Press. 

Sulimani, G. and R. Kletter. 2017. “Bone Considerations: Archaeology, Heritage, and Ethics at Mamilla, Jerusalem.” International Journal of Cultural Property 24: 321-350. 

Suriano, M.J. 2012. Ruin Hills at the Threshold of the Netherworld: The Tell in the Conceptual Landscape of the Ba‘al Cycle and Ancient Near Eastern Mythology.” Die Welt des Orients 42: 210-230. 

Suriano, M.J. 2018. A History of Death in the Hebrew Bible. Oxford: Oxford University Press.  

Melissa Cradic smiles at the camera. She has shoulder-length brown hair, with the left side tucked behind her ear. She has brown eyes, and light skin. She is wearing a grey blazer, and has a small necklace on.
Melissa Cradic

Melissa Cradic is an archaeologist and museum curator at the Badè Museum of Archaeology in Berkeley, CA. She also holds appointments as Lecturer in History and Judaic Studies at the University at Albany (State University of New York) and as Lecturer in Anthropology at California State University. After earning her B.A. in Archaeology and Classics from The George Washington University, she received an M.Phil in Archaeology from the University of Cambridge followed by a Ph.D. in Ancient History & Mediterranean Archaeology from the University of California-Berkeley. She has conducted fieldwork Tel Megiddo since 2008, for which she is co-editing a field report entitled Megiddo VII: The Investigation of Two Elite Bronze Age Tombs (forthcoming, Tel Aviv University Press). She has held fellowships at the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem (2016-2017), Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania (2019-2020), Getty Research Institute (2021-2022), and German Archaeological Institute (DAI)-Berlin. Her research on mortuary practices and commemoration has been published in journals such as Levant, BASOR, Near Eastern Archaeology, and Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports and has been featured in National Geographic and Smithsonian Magazine

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