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.
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.
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).
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]
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.
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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.
One thought on “Blog Post #67: Beyond the Grave with Melissa S. Cradic”
Very informative article – helped me contemplate the subject in a new way.