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African Perspectives on Death, Burial, and Mortuary Archaeology

Abstract and Keywords

For those engaging with the archaeology of sub-Saharan Africa for the first time, the variable but generally limited presence of mortuary archaeologies may be quite striking, although in a few regions, notably the Middle Nile, burial archaeology is better developed, providing exceptional possibilities for exploring long-term changes in cultures of death and burial. This chapter introduces some of the more prominent manifestations of burial/mortuary archaeologies in Africa, with a view to providing some sense of the current scope of research. Following this, some aspects of our more general understandings of African death beliefs and practices, notably in relation to ‘ancestors’, are discussed, including some issues raised by religious changes, including those of more recent periods. That such changes have implications for archaeological practices is also suggested.

Keywords: Africa, death, burial, ancestors, Sudan, Niger


In this chapter I will introduce some of the more prominent manifestations of burial/mortuary archaeologies in Africa with a view to providing some sense of the current scope of research. Following this, some aspects of our more general understandings of African death beliefs and practices are discussed, including some issues raised by religious changes, including those of more recent periods. It is also suggested that such changes have implications for archaeological practices. While mortuary archaeologies are generally not well developed within many parts of Africa, the chapter includes a brief review of mortuary archaeology of the Middle Nile in northeast Africa, one region where a relative abundance of both archaeological and ethnographic data makes it possible to identify some general themes and patterns.

African Mortuary Archaeologies

That burial or mortuary archaeology has a very variable presence and profile in sub-Saharan Africa provides us with a useful point of departure. Syntheses of African archaeology make clear that there are both notable presences and absences in different parts of the continent. In some regions very little research has ever been undertaken, while burial archaeology has played a prominent role in research into some Congo Basin societies (Nenquin 1963, De Maret 1994, 2005) as well as Ethiopia (Phillipson 1998). The Middle Nile is exceptional as a region where, from the first, archaeology constructed a culture-historical framework largely on the basis of cemetery excavations, spanning several millennia (Adams 1977). A regional (p. 210) tradition of materially rich mortuary cultures continues to attract significant archaeological attention today, with numerous large-scale cemeteries dating back to the early Neolithic period (in the Middle Nile datable to the 6th millennium bc) still being explored within the context of both research and rescue archaeology. In addition, a large body of ethnographic material may be juxtaposed with the archaeology. A careful reading of such sources provides some potentially interesting, fresh (and potentially challenging) perspectives on many aspects of burial practices, and their potential for analysis. Hodder's brief discussion of Nuba burial (1982: 163–70) represents one interesting early attempt to engage with such material.

The priorities of many regional research traditions (see Shaw et al. 1993) have also often had little interest in mortuary archaeologies, while chronological interests are commonly focused on the last two millennia in most parts of the continent outside the Sahara. Investigations of death and burial in earlier prehistoric periods are much more patchy. Within this brief overview, a few of the more prominent features of this archaeology can be mentioned here.

North of the equator, some general observations may be offered concerning the burial archaeology of West Africa and Sudanic/Sahelian Africa more generally. Environmental factors may play a role. Within some tropical zones dense vegetation and acid soils may pose particular problems for access to, as well as preservation of, burial sites (e.g. Merkyte and Randsborg 2009). By contrast the often high visibility of ancient burials in the more open landscapes of the Sahel and Sahara have doubtless encouraged a more widespread interest in mortuary archaeology (Paris 1996, Di Lernia and Manzi 2002, Mattingly et al. 2003, 2007), providing a record stretching back to at least the mid-Holocene, and at times earlier (Sereno et al. 2008).

Two early cemetery sites from northern Nubia have received wider attention. An apparently early Holocene ‘Mesolithic’ cemetery in the Wadi Halfa region excavated in the 1960s was the focus for one influential early investigation of the social dimensions of mortuary practices by Arthur Saxe (Saxe 1971). More widely known is another cemetery from the modern Egyptian-Sudanese border region, at Jebel Sahaba. This is widely cited both for its potentially very early date and for the violent deaths (e.g. Thorpe 2003) which seem to have been suffered by a large proportion of the population (Wendorf 1968). Identified by its excavators as an epipalaeolithic (‘Qadan’) cemetery (c.13,000–9000 bc), nearly half of the population of 59 individuals showed physical evidence of encounters with violence in the form of projectile points found in the graves and/or bones. In view of its potential interest and frequent citation, it is however important to recognize some uncertainties which still surround this site. Subsequent fieldwork in Nubia failed to find any comparable sites of this date, and in the absence of more reliable dating evidence, most of its features could perhaps suggest a significantly later date; standardized burial forms (flexed burials, head to the east facing south) and finds of cattle skulls (bucrania) on the surface close by are certainly all very reminiscent of much later practices (Reinold 2006: n. 5). However, notwithstanding the possibility that this site may date from several millennia later than originally supposed, it provides remarkable and tangible evidence for violent death.

Further south, other early (Mesolithic?) burials (Usai et al. 2010), some dating from the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition (Honegger 2001, 2005: fig. 4) have recently been found. Such material is of particular interest from a part of the world where Mesolithic populations appear to have commonly been sedentary, pottery-using hunter-gatherer-fishers for several millennia from c.8000 bc, if not earlier. They in turn may be seen as one regional tradition (p. 211) (Jesse 2004) amongst much more widespread populations of hunter-fisher-gatherers (Arioti and Oxby 1997; Barich 1998; Barich et al. 2005) dispersed across what is today Saharan/Sahelian/Sudanic Africa. Within these broader regional patterns which are beginning to emerge, potential links to larger-scale social developments, such as the spread of cattle pastoralism and what are loosely termed ‘cattle cults’ (e.g. Di Lernia 2006), have begun to be discussed.

A particular interest of Sudanese archaeology lies in the exceptionally rich Neolithic burial record, which has allowed the recent excavation of large well-preserved cemeteries (Reinold 2005, 2008, Salvatori and Usai 2008). Such large, early cemeteries clearly have a research potential of more than local significance, which may be contrasted with the apparently limited possibilities available in the Egyptian Lower Nile since pioneering studies of the first half of the 20th century (Wengrow 2006). It is already possible to describe a formalization and homogenization of Neolithic burial practice with the emergence of a predominant east-west body orientation in some parts of northern Nubia, establishing a concern for body orientation which was to be maintained for several millennia. Similar norms of burial orientation (often varying by gender) are also widely encountered in the ethnographic literature both within Sudan and beyond (e.g. Seligman and Seligman 1932, Nalder 1937, Goody 1962). The early disappearance of intra-settlement burials in northern riverine Sudan, perhaps at this time, is also worth highlighting. This may be contrasted with the quite common presence of such traditions in many neighbouring regions, at least into the ethnographic present of the 20th century (e.g. Seligman and Seligman 1932, Nalder 1937).

The period also sees evidence for growing social differentiation from the 6th millennium bc, displayed most markedly perhaps in the form of animal (Honegger 2005), and more rarely, human (Reinold 2005) sacrifices associated with burials. This in turn raises interesting (if uncomfortable) questions concerning notions of owning (and destroying) both people (as discussed in Taylor 2005) and livestock, in a period when property in objects was becoming increasingly evident. The very late Neolithic of the Egyptian frontier region (traditionally known as the A-Group) displayed a particularly rich and varied mortuary culture, with special access to Egyptian imported materials (Nordström 2007).

From the 4th millennium bc, the archaeology of northern Sudan is dominated by Kerma/Kushite societies, marked by a relatively homogeneous mortuary culture, with more diverse practices apparent in adjoining regions. How cultural developments, such as the development of homogeneous burial practices, may be related to the political development of the Kerma kingdom—the first state in sub-Saharan Africa (c.2000bc?)—has however yet to be systematically explored. Broad trends can be traced of increasingly richly furnished burials (Fig. 12.1), culminating in a series of massive ‘royal’ tumulus-covered tombs at Kerma itself, accompanied by abundant human sacrifices (Judd and Irish 2009), around the mid-2nd millennium bc. Earlier phases are marked by sometimes massive displays of slaughtered livestock (especially cattle), sometimes in their thousands, representing massive investments in funerary practices of such manifestations of wealth. The identification of shrines within cemeteries has suggested the presence of some form of ancestor cults (Bonnet 2000), including royal cults, a possibility recently explored in more detail in relation to contemporary ‘C-Group’ populations in northern Nubia (Bangsgaard 2010). Anthropological data derived from Kerma burials has also made possible interesting studies of the prevalence of violence/physical injuries amongst the Bronze Age populations of northern Sudan in the period (Judd 2002, 2004).

 African Perspectives on Death, Burial, and Mortuary ArchaeologyClick to view larger

fig. 12.1 ‘Kerma’ burial with pottery deposits and accompanying animal burials of earlier 2nd millennium bc, northern Sudan

Source: Photo courtesy of Derek Welsby.

(p. 212) The conquest and occupation of much of Nubia by New Kingdom Egypt during the second half of the 2nd millennium bc has provided considerable scope for exploring cultural developments within colonial and frontier contexts. In northern Nubia, elements of indigenous cultural traditions, especially in mortuary practice, seem to have survived for several generations. However, some 200 years after the Egyptian conquest, their more obvious manifestations seem to have largely disappeared, while Egyptian burial forms and material culture now dominated the region (Williams 1992), if however being adopted in varied and complex ways (Säve-Söderbergh 1991, Sinclair and Troy 1991, Smith 2003, Török 2009). Declining numbers of burials, as evidence for population decline may also provide an insight into otherwise little-discussed negative impacts of the Egyptian colonial enterprise in Nubia.

Some centuries after the Egyptian withdrawal from Nubia, during the 1st millennium bc, a revived Nubian kingdom (25th Dynasty/Napatan Kushites) continued to manifest elements of Egyptian practices in elite burials, coexisting with indigenous forms of practice which differ little in substance from those of the Kerma period (Lohwasser 2010). Through the later 1st millennium bc under the Meroitic dynasties, such distinctions were generally maintained (Edwards 1998). One further potentially novel element in the later Meroitic period was the growing prevalence of collective/multiple (family?) burials. The repeated reopening of graves demonstrates little regard for the integrity of earlier burials; and there is also clear evidence that burials were being routinely ‘robbed’ very soon after initial burials (see also Näser, this volume). Such practices raise interesting questions about attitudes to the physical remains of the dead and what constituted ‘normal’ practices. The equipment and (p. 213) inscriptions associated with elite burials continue to indicate some forms of ancestral cult associated with burial places.

While traditional understandings of the political break-up of the Meroitic kingdom in the 3rd–4th centuries ad have looked to ethnic (and cultural) explanations for the ‘fall of Meroe’, it is increasingly apparent that the immediately post-Meroitic centuries (4th–6th centuries) need to be reconceptualized in terms of political changes, manifested most obviously through the disappearance of elements of elite practice, but also in much continuity, if with local variability (Fuller 1999). Notwithstanding widespread continuities, there remain however some intriguing disjunctures. Of these, the most marked and widespread is the relatively rapid abandonment of forms of multiple (family?) burials and an almost universal shift towards individual burials. Why this should be remains far from clear. That this might relate to new understandings of, or attitudes to, the dead is of course possible. It might also reflect changing relationships with ‘ancestral’ cemeteries and the kind of social ties with ‘place’ which could potentially be maintained over several generations, perhaps related to contemporary changes in patterns of settlement and land-use.

In the following centuries, the development of new forms of power and status, in which military power is commonly emphasized, was manifested in massive elite/royal tumulus burials. In the most notable of these, in northern Nubia (Emery 1938), the wealth and power of emerging Nobatian kings was demonstrated in the destruction of both humans and livestock (Lenoble 2005), in another brief period in which human sacrifice came to the fore within elite mortuary displays. This tradition was in turn to cease quite suddenly, probably around ad 500, in the context of the Christianization of the region (Edwards 2001). In later centuries, some medieval royal burials seem to have been focused on royal churches, which were in turn to become pilgrimage centres; this is the case, for example, at a mausoleum church recently discovered at Banganarti near the medieval capital of Old Dongola (Zurawski 2008).

Burial studies have provided some further insights into the progress of Christianization, not least in how followers of the new religion commonly maintained existing cemetery sites, not feeling the need to distance themselves from their non-Christian ancestors. A feature of burial sites of both Christian and later Islamic traditions in the region is their role as the foci of cults of ‘saints’, as was common more widely in Africa and Near East where these religions became established (Petersen 1999, Taylor 1999, Meri 2002). Particularly distinctive features of the Islamic burial landscapes of the region are the often large, domed tombs of holy men (Fig. 12.2).

The vast ethnographic literature is also indicative of a much wider variety of practices than we might suggest on the basis of archaeological material, ranging from massive ‘pyramid’ shrines in the Upper Nile (Johnson 1990), through notoriously unelaborate treatment of the dead amongst the Nuer (Evans-Pritchard 1949, 1956), to traditions of delayed/secondary burial in some parts of the Ethiopian borderlands (e.g. Jedrej 1979, James 1988). As ever, this also draws attention to the need for openness and subtlety in our understandings of death and burial on the basis of archaeological evidence.

 African Perspectives on Death, Burial, and Mortuary ArchaeologyClick to view larger

fig. 12.2 Tombs of Islamic notables (18th–19th century?), near Ed Debba, northern Sudan

With the increasing desiccation of all Saharan/Sahelian regions from the mid-Holocene, broad spatial shifts in populations to more secure environments may be variously connected with the spread of agriculture (coming much later than pastoralism in African contexts), sedentarization, and latterly urbanization over more recent millennia (Marshall and Hildebrand 2002, Casey 2005, LaViolette and Fleisher 2005). Across much of Sudanic Africa (p. 214) a growing body of mortuary data associated with these developments is now accumulating, although more synthetic analyses, rather than descriptions, still remain limited. The interest in mortuary investigations may however have a variety of inspirations. The plundering of ‘art’ objects from burials, notably terracotta ‘ancestor’ statuettes from sites in Mali (McIntosh and McIntosh 1979), has been one major factor in encouraging an interest in burial sites which had previously attracted little attention. ‘Tellem’ (11th–16th century) cave burials along the Bandiagara escarpment in Mali (Bedaux 1972), for example, are also principally known for the exceptional preservation of textiles and other organic artefacts associated with them. Chance finds of spectacularly ‘rich’ burials, such as the 1st millennium burial at Igbo Ukwu (Shaw 1977), have also raised interesting interpretative issues for mortuary archaeologists, not least in the ‘persuasive, non-hierarchical alternative interpretations’ (McIntosh 1999: 12) which may be possible for such rich burials.

However, while systematic research in mortuary/burial archaeology still has a variable presence, some patterns are beginning to emerge (Kiethega et al. 1993). A range of burial forms have now been recognized in ‘medieval’ cemeteries, such as that at Dia Shoma on the Niger (Bedaux et al. 1978, 2006; Zeitoun et al. 2004), a variability which has been linked to a cultural diversity thought to be a feature of early urban formations in that region. Pre-Islamic burial forms include the placing of burials within funerary jars as well as a more widely encountered use of chamber burials (hypogées) (Kiethega et al. 1993, Holl 1994, Sanogo 1994). Examples of particularly richly furnished chamber burials, possibly of the 11th century, marked by large tumuli (e.g. Desplanges 1951), are assumed to have been associated with the rise of ‘imperial’ states in the region (McIntosh 2005: 177), whose elaborate royal funerary rites are recorded in medieval Arab accounts.

(p. 215) Burial within large ceramic jars is a distinctive practice which is widely encountered, albeit with some regional variability. Current evidence suggests such burial forms can be found across a large part of western Sudanic Africa, from the Inland Niger Delta, across northern Burkino Faso to the Lake Chad region (e.g. Raimbault and Sanogo 1991, Holl 1994); such types of burials seem to have persisted in northern Cameroon into the 19th century. This distinctive form of burial practice has only recently become the subject of more systematic investigation (Diethelm 2008). A further facet of research into medieval and more recent burial practices relates to the adoption of Islamic burial forms and practices (see Petersen, this volume), for example in the Gao region (Insoll 1996), alongside varied indigenous practices (e.g. Gado 1993). Such research forms one part of more fundamental studies of religious change (Insoll 2003) and Sahelian constructions of Islam (Moraes Farias 2003).

Central Africa still remains poorly researched and many of its more recent kingdoms remain almost totally unknown archaeologically (Connah 2001: ch. 8). Some relatively recent royal tombs of Rwanda, for example, have seen some archaeological investigation (Van Noten 1972). The resource-rich Upemba depression of southeastern Congo/Zaire is perhaps exceptional as one region where a significant body of mortuary data spanning the last two millennia has now been collected (Nenquin 1963, De Maret 1982, 1985, 1994, 2005). The rich material remains accompanying burials, notably iron and copper metalwork as well human sacrifices, have been linked to the early development of the Luba kingdom, known historically from the 18th century. Limited archaeological contributions have been made to the study of the origin of the Interlacustrine kingdoms further east. Particular interest has been shown in the Buganda, including some investigation of Buganda royal tombs and shrines (Oliver 1959). Some of these may date from the 16th century or earlier, while some continue to play significant roles in modern Ugandan politics (Kigongo and Reid 2007).

Burial/mortuary archaeology has played little part in studies of the Zimbabwe plateau and especially the developments of the early 2nd millennium ad associated with Great Zimbabwe (Chirikure and Pikirayi 2008), and very few burial sites have been explored. Where burials have been encountered, their primary interest has lain in their associated artefacts, as indicators of rank and/or access to trade goods from the East African coast, as for example at Mapungubwe (Huffman 1982, Hall 1987: 75–84) or with 14th/15th-century burials at Ingombe Ilede on the Zambezi (Phillipson and Fagan 1969).

On the East African coast, the spread of Islam has attracted research interest, and some studies have begun to explore local Swahili practices within a wider Islamic tradition, for example in relation to cemetery organization and the incorporation of tombs within urban spaces (e.g. Horton 1996). Otherwise, a considerable body of data exists concerning Islamic holy men and their tombs, which commonly perform important social and religious roles. Such practices are in turn today often fiercely contested between and within the many Islamic communities of East Africa (e.g. Mire 2007, Becker 2009).

Anthropological Knowledge

It is of course impossible here to draw out any meaningful generalizations from the huge variability of burial practices encountered through time and space across the continent, either within recent (ethnographic) or more ancient contexts. However, with the existence of (p. 216) quite well-documented systems of religious beliefs and practices in modern times, it is possible to draw attention to a number of research foci of potential importance for those archaeological studies of death and burial which aspire to look beyond analyses framed in terms of wealth and status, and the like (see Chapman, Chapter 4 this volume). African ethnographic examples cited by Ucko in an important contribution to mortuary archaeology (Ucko 1969) still provide a useful point of departure.

Perhaps the most widely encountered feature of African belief systems relates to the ‘Ancestors’, who remain a powerful force in contemporary life in many parts of the continent. That archaeology might aspire to be able to contribute to historical understandings of ‘ancestors’ does not seem unreasonable, although they in fact retain a relatively low profile in most archaeological literature. It might also be suggested that the extensive African literature which exists could perhaps be usefully explored by those working outside African contexts, where, for example, a sometimes promiscuous and uncritical invocation of ‘ancestors’ has invited criticism (see Whitley 2002 for one critique).

The often pervasive character of ancestor beliefs (Fortes 1965) has inspired an extensive anthropological literature which provides a valuable point of departure for any archaeological studies. As expressed by Meyer Fortes, ancestor worship (including the worship of royal or chiefly ancestors) may be rooted in domestic, kinship, and descent relations as well as institutions, and may be extending such relations into the supernatural sphere, as a reflection of these relations, or their ritual and symbolic expression (1965: 122). The ways in which authority may also be projected through ancestor worship is also suggested within the variously structured relationships between the living and the dead encountered in many African societies. The complexity and variability of such relationships should also caution against indiscriminate references to ‘ancestors’ as often encountered in archaeological literature.

Age and gender relations (e.g. Wadley 1997) are also commonly of crucial importance. The authority of the elders, for example, may be manifested in the control of burials, deciding who merits formal burial, and who does not. In societies where the generational idiom has remained powerful, recent histories have shown how the dead and the management of death may become an active arena for social and political contests (e.g. Ngimbi 1997). But it is also clear that ‘traditional’ patriarchies (Hodgson 1999) or gerontocracies (Kopytoff 1971) of more recent societies all have their own histories in which the nature and roles of ancestors also have their own dynamic histories. That some social groups, such as those without kin, may be excluded from such essentially social relationships might also be explored. At one extreme, such may be the case with the often casual and informal disposal of dead slaves, encountered not infrequently in historical accounts (e.g. Gronenborn 2001: 122). Some occupational groups may also be excluded from ‘normal’ burial; the apparently long-established tradition of burying Mande griots/bards in baobab trees (Conrad and Frank 1995: 4–7) provides one, still puzzling, example of ‘deviant’ burial.

Exploration of such ancestral relationships might also be framed rather differently, in terms of the continuation of bonds between the living and the dead (Goss and Klass 2005), and in what contexts they may develop. Such bonds do, for example, seem to be of limited scope amongst some hunting and gathering societies whose death beliefs and practices are commonly simple and unelaborated (Woodburn 1982). Anthropological literature further suggests as yet little-explored research directions concerning ways that animals may also often be closely implicated in relations with ancestors and the spirit world more generally (e.g. Morris 2000). On occasions, humans and animals may share common ground in (p. 217) encounters with death. It is not uncommon, for example, to find that both cattle and people killed by lightning may share similar and distinctive burial forms, while amongst some hunting and gathering societies (e.g. the Hadza) animal death may be more ideologically elaborated than human death (Woodburn 1982: 188).

Within African contexts, burials (especially as formal cemetery areas) may well relate to claims to land (or other resource) ownership, as suggested in the familiar Saxe/Goldstein propositions. Such claims may, however, be invoked in varied forms, not only (or primarily) through the creation of cemeteries. It may be manifested, for example within below-house burial, a practice commonly encountered in West Africa (De Corse 2001: 187–91; for Dahomey/Benin see Merkyte and Randsborg 2009), a practice which also has implications in terms of a lack of separation between the living and the dead. In other contexts, we may encounter intra-settlement burials within specific gendered idioms. Within pastoralist kraals in southern Africa, for example, ‘the ancestors were the domesticated dead of the settlement… part of the sphere in which men, through the medium of cattle, reproduced the social order’ (Comaroff 1985: 82–4). In this case, wealth and patriarchal dominance are reflected in the burial of men within the cattle byres, women and children being placed separately amongst the house compounds (e.g. Denbow 1999: 112). Archaeological exploration of the longer-term development of a (patriarchal?) pastoralism clearly invites further research.

Varied traditions of the disposal of the dead and the creation and veneration of ancestors may be interpreted in terms of claims to various forms of social or physical capital (of which land may be only one). Individuals might grasp at ‘social immortality’ through founding a new community or founding a new lineage (Kopytoff 1987: 22), but such strategies could be played out in contexts and spaces away from burial sites (as discrete functionally defined spaces), most commonly through the creation of shrines. These might take many forms, which may perform related functions (see for example Insoll 2007). Just like burials, they may be used to demarcate territory and make claims to land through historical, ancestral validation (e.g. Colson 1997, Mather 2003). Shrines may have been manifested as real tombs, bringing them within the range of what is perceived as ‘mortuary archaeology’. Conversely, it is also apparent that the mere presence of human remains need not in itself establish the primary purpose of shrine sites as ‘mortuary’. That (in many contexts) we might think of ‘megalithic shrines’ as much as ‘megalithic monuments’ or ‘tombs’ is perhaps a line of investigation worth pursuing further (see also Scarre 2008). Such a conflation of functions is not uncommon, perhaps to be seen in megalithic monuments in northwestern Central African Republic (Zangato 1999), ritual sites with a burial component, or indeed the better-known megalithic sites of the Senegambia (Lawson 2003). Associations between burials and sacred groves/forests and their shrines are also not uncommon (e.g. Merkyte and Randsborg 2009). Such complexities would certainly warn against any presumptions that mortuary archaeologies can easily be disengaged from other, maybe intimately connected, fields of social practice.

The potential for separating ancestors from burial sites is perhaps worth stressing. Ancestors may be mobile and able to move with people. This may be of particular importance in ‘frontier’ conditions when lands are being colonized, and where ‘“roots” were not conceived to be in place (as Westerners often define theirs) but in a kin group, in ancestors, in a genealogical position’; with a ‘capacity to carry, so to speak, with oneself the rootedness of one's own social structure—be it to a rural frontier, as in the past, or to a city, as now’ (Kopytoff 1987: 22–3). That ancestors may also be required in urban contexts is also noteworthy. It is interesting to note how in recent times in contemporary Kenyan politics (in which (p. 218) struggles for identity and belonging are at the fore), the politics of urban funerals may now demand the return of Nairobi's urban dead to their ancestral lands (Droz and Maupeu 2003).

More generally, it may be suggested that the wider connections which may exist between death, ancestors, property and its inheritance, deserve further exploration not least in the light of the suggested distinctiveness of African (as opposed to Eurasian) systems of production, reproduction, and inheritance (Goody 1962, 1976, Hann 2008). If such distinctions do exist, with potential implications for people's relationships with land and indeed ‘places’, it might be expected that they be manifested in mortuary arenas.

In this respect, it is perhaps worth returning to perhaps the most widely cited ‘African’ material drawn on in relation to mortuary archaeologies and ancestors, derived from Madagascar (Bloch 1971, Mack 1986, Parker Pearson 1992, Parker Pearson and Ramilisonina 1998, Middleton 1999). The Merina case relates to societies where forms of property relations (notable for the importance of land for rice terraces) are notably atypical within Africa (Hann 2008: 149 n. 3). Drawing on traditions of Austronesian populations who colonized the island within the last 2000 years, Madagascar also presents interesting examples of local developments of recognizably Austronesian traditions, being played out within specific elite practices in Madagascan kingdoms of the 2nd millennium ad (Crossland 2001, Larson 2001). Merina associations between megaliths and burials also have very specific contextual associations which again mark them out as very unusual within African contexts, while well-known practices of double burial (‘turning the bones’) would seem to relate to South East Asian traditions (e.g. Reid 2002).

The more recent history of Africa provides further interesting contexts within which cultural contacts, manifested both in the form of new religious traditions and often radically new political structures, have been powerful forces. Within post-colonial contexts death and dying continue to be re-imagined in many new ways (Lamont 2009). The arrival of Islam may have removed pre-existing ritual forms which attended death and burial in many parts of Sudanic/Sahelian Africa. But it may also be the case that other aspects of earlier belief systems have been accommodated within ostensibly Islamic practices, as for example among the Fulani Wodaabe (Stenning 1959), or the Berti (Holy 1991) or Zaghawa (Tubiana 1964) of the Chad-Sudanese borderlands. In such contexts, burial practices may provide only a partial insight into changing belief systems.

In West Africa, the long and complex histories of a European presence over some 500 years have also had major impacts, which have begun to be explored archaeologically. De Corse's work at El Mina provides valuable insights into multi-cultural contexts of the ‘Gold Coast’ where Christianity was meeting local systems of belief and practice (De Corse 2001: 187–91). Into modern times, even among amongst Christian populations of Dahomey, long-established traditions of beneath-house burial are commonly followed, combining church and traditional burial ceremonies. Such accommodations are also known to have worked both ways as some Europeans were buried within local idioms (e.g. Winsnes 2000, Merkyte and Randsborg 2009: 57, 67). A further dimension is of course added in transatlantic manifestations of African burial traditions in the Americas (e.g. Singleton 2001).

One further facet of such encounters of course concerns archaeological practice in Africa, where the claims of ‘science’ and ‘heritage’ encounter those of societies for whom the dead may have very different meanings. Across the continent, ancestors often continue to play important and often central roles in the lives of the living. Maintaining such bonds between (p. 219) the living and the dead commonly does not invite the disturbance of their physical remains or the ancestral landscapes they dwell in. The potential tensions between such belief systems and archaeological practice merit further investigation (Schmidt 2009), not least in how ancestral landscapes may be eroded or indeed destroyed by processes of ‘development’ (e.g. Andah 1995), processes in which archaeologists are also increasingly trying to find for themselves a positive role (e.g. Arazi 2009).

A perceived inappropriateness of investigating burial sites where there exist(ed) linkages with living communities has undoubtedly helped shape research in many regions, although attitudes to disturbing the dead may be very variable and accommodations reached (e.g. Merkyte and Randsborg 2009: n. 2). Such tensions have however perhaps received less explicit acknowledgment than one might expect, although perhaps understandably where the universalizing claims of Western ‘science’ have as yet seen relatively little self-critical examination within the so-called ‘archaeological community’. Likewise, in regions where ‘new’ religious traditions (notably Islam and Christianity) had gained ascendancy, sensitivities about the physical remains of earlier populations outside those religions have often diminished, or disappeared. By contrast, burials within the Islamic tradition are widely treated as inviolate, respecting Islam's ‘understandable prohibitions’ as suggested by Insoll (2003: 17), but perhaps raising further interesting questions about our disciplinary practices, and what archaeologists commonly ‘do’.

Legal frameworks which may constrain archaeological activities which disturb the dead are of course quite variable, although many further issues exist concerning the potential lack of fit between African customary law(s) and the imported common law systems which are legacies of colonial period state-building. While archaeologists may be concerned to act ‘sensitively’ in the presence of indigenous beliefs systems, the ultimate power of Western (as well as Islamic) legal models accepted at Independence can only erode the legitimacy of other customary models. Conflicts between two legal traditions concerning the treatment of the dead (e.g. Van Doren 1988) may reflect those more general tensions which may exist between the claims of scientific archaeological practice and customary understandings.


Thanks to Sarah Tarlow for some useful discussions concerning mortuary archaeologies, Renata MacDougall for alerting me to many issues relevant to the ancestral dead, and Paul Lane for other useful suggestions.

Suggested Further Reading

Suggested Further Reading

Edwards, D. N. 2004. The Nubian Past: An Archaeology of the Sudan. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

    The most recent introduction to archaeology of the Middle Nile region and its often spectacular mortuary archaeology.

    Goody, J. 1962. Death, Property and the Ancestors: A Study of the Mortuary Customs of the LoDagaa of West Africa. London: Tavistock Publications.Find this resource:

      An essential reference for an influential study linking death and property.

      (p. 220) Gronenborn, D., Adderley, P., Ameje, J., Banerjee, A., Fenn, A., Liesegang, G., Gerhard, C.-P., Abdallah Usman, Y., and Patscher, S. 2012. Durbi Takusheyi: A High-Status Burial Site in the Western Central Bilād al-Sūdān. Azania 46(3): 256-71.Find this resource:

        This recent paper reports on high-status burials of 15th–16th century date from Hausaland.

        Kopytoff, I. 1971. Ancestors as Elders in Africa. Africa 4: 129–42.Find this resource:

          A useful text, identifying key literature, located in (still active) debates on ancestral beliefs in Africa.

          McIntosh, S. (ed.) 1999. Beyond Chiefdoms: Pathways to Complexity in Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

            The case studies discussed here introduce a range of social and political forms which may prove stimulating in relation to mortuary data, and how it may be interpreted.

            Mather, C. 2003. Shrines and the Domestication of Landscape. Journal of Anthropological Research 59(1): 23–45.Find this resource:

              This article provides a useful introduction to African shrines and the large and often sophisticated literature which exists.

              Salvatori, S. and Usai, D. 2008. A Neolithic Cemetery in the Northern Dongola Reach. London: SARS.Find this resource:

                An excellent and thorough analysis of recent excavations of a substantial Neolithic cemetery in north Sudan. It is probably the most thorough such study yet undertaken.

                Schmidt, P. R. 2009. African Archaeology and the Ancestors (Bassey Andah Memorial Lecture 2009). Can be retrieved from 〈〉.Find this resource:

                  This lecture draws attention to several key issues relating to current archaeological practice in Africa, and how it may develop.

                  Shaw, T., Sinclair, P., Andah, B., and Opkoko. A. (eds) 1993. The Archaeology of Africa: Food, Metals and Towns. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

                    This edited volume provides essential reading around the continent.

                    Stahl, A. (ed.) 2005. African Archaeology. Oxford: Blackwell.Find this resource:

                      This edited volume includes several excellent and authoritative regional and thematic studies.

                      Woodburn, J. 1982. Social Dimensions of Death in Four African Hunting and Gathering Societies. In: M. Bloch and J. Parry (eds) Death and the Regeneration of Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 187–210.Find this resource:

                        An important paper in relation to more theoretical debates about the significance and roles of mortuary elaboration.

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