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Belief and the Archaeology of Death

Abstract and Keywords

Belief is not the same as religion, although the two words are often used as synonyms. Instead, beliefs may pertain to any aspect of how the world is known and understood and are the frameworks upon which we—in the past and in the present—make sense of our worlds. This chapter considers the nature of belief and its relationship to religion. It advocates the study of belief discourses and above all emphasizes that beliefs about death and the dead may be multiple and complex and will be contradictory. Contradiction and plurality is part of the way belief operates and should not be an invitation to sort out which is the single right interpretation, or to find ways of reconciling apparent incompatibilities. This theme is explored through a discussion of the treatment of the dead body in Scotland in the period between 1560 and 1850.

Keywords: belief, religion, post-medieval, Scotland, folklore, discourse


This is a chapter about how belief, and beliefs, affect the way that people treat the dead, and about how archaeologists might address the complexity of beliefs in the past. In it I make two main points:

  1. 1. Beliefs are contextual.

  2. 2. Different traditions of belief can and do exist in complex relationships with each other. They can be drawn upon selectively and contextually.

Political beliefs, scientific beliefs, social and customary beliefs, and personal beliefs can all be equally influential on our ways of understanding the world, and all can be invoked to justify particular mortuary practices. A belief is a way of understanding the world: I believe that the earth is round, that my body is made of cells, and that Moscow is the capital city of Russia. I believe these things not through empirical knowledge but because other people in my society tell me that is how things are, either directly as my teachers and parents did, or indirectly through reference to a shared body of knowledge which is drawn upon not only in social exchanges like conversation, but also in cultural productions such as books, films, material culture, and so on. I believe them because they make sense as part of wider stories (of cosmology, biology, geography) and because I trust my sources of information and cannot see why they would want to deceive me. I also believe them because everyone I know (or nearly everyone I know) also believes them. My beliefs are social. They are also enabling. Having a set of beliefs, and sharing those beliefs, broadly, with most of the other people in my society, enables me to act in the world appropriately and gives me control—or at least an illusion of control—over my actions, because I think I know what the consequences are likely to be. As archaeologists, we try to make sense of the worlds of people who are long gone. Sometimes we have written records of aspects of their lives; often we have only the material traces of their practices and (some of) the physical remains of their bodies. We cannot fully recreate their thoughts, feelings, or understandings. However, if we recognize (p. 618) that there is a relationship between beliefs and practices, and if we accept that both are shared and social, then the traces of their practices which constitute the subject matter of our discipline can offer us a way to approach belief. Focus on practice obviates the need to ‘get into people's heads’, but it also means that the focus of our study is not the personal and idiosyncratic interior experience of believing something, but the shared and cultural beliefs that structure a collective way of thinking about the world. I discuss these later in terms of ‘belief discourses’.

Why do Beliefs Matter?

Beliefs matter, in our understanding of the world, and in any attempt to understand the human world of the past, because they define the parameters within which our actions make sense. If I did not believe that tooth decay is caused by the build-up of plaque on the surface of the enamel, then rubbing my teeth with a nylon brush twice a day would make no sense. Because I believe that it is beneficial to my health I put on shorts and run around, even though there is nothing in particular I am going towards and nothing I am running away from; an apparently meaningless (and uncomfortable) practice needs the scaffolding of belief to make it rational. In the past, drilling holes in the skull or throwing metal objects into rivers are examples of practices that also make sense only within particular social frameworks of belief. As archaeologists, understanding those social frameworks of belief is necessary to go beyond documenting and describing anthropogenic material and towards understanding people who lived in the past. It is also worth noting that the relationship between belief and material practices/bodily actions is a reciprocal and mutually sustaining one. To return to my toothbrushing example, the very act of brushing helps to sustain our belief that plaque is bad and that our teeth will fall out if we don’t do it, even if the practice itself has become a matter of unreflexive habit most of the time (I am indebted to Oliver Harris for pointing this out). Thus, practice is not exactly a mode of belief, but practices make sense within a framework of belief. Even mundane practices, which are rarely the subject of discursive awareness, partake of belief, but the nature of belief, it is argued here, can include the nebulous, ill-formulated, and contradictory.

Beliefs and the Dead

In the mortuary context an understanding of belief is especially important. As the chapters in this volume demonstrate, cultural responses to death are enormously varied. However, they all operate with various systems of logic. Some of these might be described as religious or as ritual; others are maybe more about the proper constitution and ordering of society; still others relate to knowledge of the world. As they inform mortuary practices such beliefs are often unarticulated, and frequently overlap with other systems of knowledge because death and the dead have significance in many contexts at the same time. This chapter will consider the multiple and contradictory nature of beliefs about the dead through a brief review of the treatment of the dead body in Scotland in the period 1560–1850, following some discussion of belief in archaeology, with particular reference to the mortuary context.

(p. 619) Religious Belief

Belief is often used in English as a synonym for religion. Insoll (2004) uses it in that sense, although he has a detailed and thoughtful discussion of why archaeologists often prefer to use the term ‘ritual’ to ‘religion’. As he points out, one of the problems of the term ‘religion’ is that it immediately raises the question of how one distinguishes between ‘religious’ and ‘non-religious’ context. As archaeologists operating in the largely secular world of academic discourse, and often without any strong religious feelings ourselves, we often privilege explanations which explicitly or implicitly rely on social or scientific beliefs in the past rather than religious or spiritual ones. This is part of the legacy of the broadly materialist approaches of dominant archaeological theory, including both environmentalist/processual lines of explanation and Marxist-influenced social archaeology, both of which are inclined to treat religious belief and experience as epiphenomenal; and partly the result of a contemporary sociological context in which religion is unfamiliar and unfashionable in the lives of most archaeologists (Insoll 2004). Where Insoll seeks to reclaim the word ‘religion’, claiming that religion should properly be understood as the important structuring principle in the lives of past people, this chapter suggests that ‘belief’ is a more inclusive and useful term, admitting of contradiction and complexity, and removing the expectation that religion is always or exclusively supernatural. There is thus no artificial distinction between beliefs that relate to the supernatural world and those that relate to the physical or social one. They are all forms of knowledge that are subject to culturally variable forms of verification (e.g. reference to authority or tradition; observation, inference, revelation, reasoning, etc.)

Modern understandings of religious belief, and the ways that archaeologists have generally written about religious belief, can be broadly divided into two main strands: the first assumes that belief is a relatively coherent interior conviction; the second that religious belief operates ideologically to legitimize particular relationships of power. A third, more anthropological, strand of interpretation, holds that religious belief can be considered as a structuring ontology of myth, symbol, and meaning.

The first and third of these approaches share an expectation that belief systems will structure a coherent understanding of the world and one's place in it. In this way of thinking, apparent contradictions must be understood as the products of a wholly different way of thinking about the natural and supernatural world and one's place in it. A central process in the development of modern anthropology has been the discussion of the extent to which the different ways that societies think are indicative of ‘mentalities’, and whether these are evolutionary in character. Later 20th-century thought enabled a relativistic attitude to the minds of members of other societies and suggested that they were as intellectually competent as Europeans rather than being fundamentally and constitutionally incapable of reason. This important insight however has also promoted an expectation that beliefs should be logical and free of internal contradiction if one can only uncover the right frame of logic—a notion implicit in Levi-Strauss's The Savage Mind (1962), for example. This chapter suggests that neither the ethnographically or archaeologically observed beliefs of unfamiliar others, nor our own traditional systems of religious understanding possess such a frame of logic; and that belief is better understood as a cultural complex of metaphor, story, and association, together with traditional practices, which admit contradiction and incoherence, and do not demand faithful adherence.

(p. 620) Western expectations of belief are conditioned by our history of Christianity. Christianity, especially Protestantism, attributes great importance to faith. Luther famously promoted the doctrine of salvation ‘by faith alone’. This is quite a distinctive approach to religion, and contrasted even with late medieval Catholicism which put greater emphasis on observance, works, and virtues. Many other religions—even major global ones—do not attribute anything like so much importance to faith. But the unexamined assumptions about faith, belief, and the nature of religion that academic archaeologists bring to our interpretations of the past are greatly shaped by Protestant ideas. This would be no more than a linguistic quirk if it did not engender a set of expectations about the way religion informs action. If religion is belief—an internal conviction about how the world, the cosmos, the natural, and the supernatural are, then we expect human actions to be coherent, congruent with a single, although sometimes complex, ontology. We also expect such a faith-based ontology to inform or generate a code by which practices in all area of life are determined. It must be supra-contextual. Our cultural expectations of religion, then, are that it should be ‘faithful’, based on true conviction, of which actions and utterances are expressions. This applies not only to religious belief, but it is certainly possible to argue that there is a direct line into the development of scientific reasoning: an expectation that the world must be explicable through a single, true, and coherent model—a notion of science which still underlies most popular and some academic philosophies of knowledge.

Metaphors of Death

Death is often seen as a key moment for religion, when beliefs about the nature of human life, the fate of the body, and the self (‘soul’, ‘person’, or whatever) are invoked and expressed, often in material fashion, as ballast against fear, grief, and disruption. Thus the physical realities of death, decay, and separation are partially mitigated by figurative treatments that allow the bereaved to think of the dead person as sleeping, ‘dwelling’ in the grave, undertaking a journey, or still present in some altered form among the living.

 Belief and the Archaeology of DeathClick to view larger

fig. 34.1 Boat-shaped stone settings from Årby gravefield, Hallstahammar, Sweden

Source: Photograph courtesy of MagnusA.

Metaphors are common in our linguistic approaches to death. We say in English ‘she passed over’, ‘he fell asleep’, or use other circumlocutions; these and similar expressions are common in other European languages too (Marìn-Arrese 1996). But metaphors are not only linguistic figures; they are also clear in our material practices—in the elaboration of ceramic vessels for example, or, for our current purposes, in the archaeology of death (Tarlow 1999, Tilley 1999). One of the best-known examples is the burial in which the grave takes the form of a ship or other form of transport, which operates a metaphor of journey or travel at death. Among the pre-Christian Norse of Scandinavia, ship burials range from the highly elaborate and well-equipped ships, such as those recovered at Oseberg, Gokstad, and Tune (Brøgger and Shetelig 1953), to simple boat-shaped stone settings which are well known in non-elite cemeteries in the period (Gerds 2007; see Fig. 34.1). Across the North Sea, a century or so before the interment of the famous Norwegian ship burials, Anglo-Saxon graves sometimes contain compelling evidence of a metaphor of sleep, materialized through the inclusion in graves of bed parts (e.g. Speake 1989, Darrah et al. 1998, Sherlock and Simmons 2008). In these ‘bed burials’ the deceased was placed on a bed, as if sleeping, allowing a figurative understanding of death which denies its finality and its fundamental difference to life. Other metaphors of death that are sometimes encountered archaeologically are the agricultural metaphor, where the dead are ‘planted’ using some of the same processes, tools, and (p. 621) techniques that attend the sowing of seed; and that of rebirth, where the place of burial may be conceptually developed as a womb from which the deceased (perhaps placed in a curled, embryonic position) is ready to be born again. Both of these two involve a strongly cyclical understanding of life and death in which death is part of a circle of fertility, an idea explored most notably by Bloch and Parry (1982) in a range of anthropological contexts.

Metaphors of death, perhaps especially when they are given material elaboration in the forms of ships, houses, or bedclothes, challenge any straightforward or unitary concept of belief. Did people really ‘believe’ that a dead person was asleep, or living in their tomb, or that their ship or horse would carry them to another place? Not in the same way that they believed that wood would burn or that birds can fly, but in another important way that allowed them to participate in their societies and construct meaning from the futility and ephemerality of existence, yes. Metaphorical thought confronts us with the multi-modality of belief.

Belief as Instrumental

Another common approach to the nature of belief in the past is the position that beliefs, especially religious ones, are promulgated strategically by certain interest groups in order to legitimate inequalities of power or to naturalize certain structures of social relationships through mystification. Insoll (2004) has suggested that the very secular outlooks of most modern archaeologists (and, in fact, most academics in general) make them wary of discussing ‘religion’ in the archaeological past: they prefer to attribute change to social and economic factors which they understand better. The preference for understanding religion as an ideological tool in the negotiation of more fundamental areas of human experience such as economics may be a facet of our predominantly secular outlook. As Parker Pearson (1999: 145) has suggested, (p. 622) ‘We need understandings of social change beyond the materialist, functionalist and sociobiological models of evolutionary development which explain away ideology and religion as merely legitimatory mechanisms functioning to ensure reproductive success and control over economic resources and their exploitation’. There is an interesting parallel here with what Renato Rosaldo claimed to be the neglect of the emotional context of mourning by ethnographers who are mostly too young to have been through the experience of bereavement themselves and who prefer to concentrate on ritual practice instead (Rosaldo 1983).

While it is important to recognize that religion can be a potent force in validating inequalities of power, and might be manipulated by particular interest groups in order to pursue their own goals, it is also the case that beliefs generally have an ontological and emotional status that makes it impossible for an individual or collective agent simply to promote one set of them in order to accomplish particular ends.

Problems with Belief

If it is unsatisfactory, then, to interpret beliefs chiefly in terms of their strategic deployment, do we need to ‘get inside people's heads’ and find a way of recovering their actual thoughts? The problem with the question of belief is that the moment one starts asking ‘What did people really believe?’ it becomes unanswerable. As a way out of the potential morass, I suggest here leaving aside the problems of inferring belief from practice, and the potentially enormous distance between what people believe and what they do or say; beliefs are so complicated, contextual, cultural, ephemeral that such an uncompromising question has no meaning. Instead we might ask ‘In what circumstances did people participate in particular belief discourses?’

Ancient historian Paul Veyne (1983) asks us ‘Did the Greeks believe in their myths?’ Veyne shows us how what people believed in the classical world could be context-specific and appropriate to the moment. The same men who might make devotions to household gods would also be making political strategy to promote the interests of their state. Rather than moving to condemn those people for hypocrisy or attribute their words and actions to a strategic promotion of ideological myth for personal gain, Veyne shows how multiple and contextual cultural truth can be. In considering beliefs about the human body, I have certainly found it helpful to think of belief not as a fixed interior conviction, but as a knot of entangled but different discourses and material practices that sometimes contradict each other, but which nevertheless can be drawn upon to provide a contextual way of doing and thinking.

The study of belief discourse allows belief to be both genuinely held (however that may be) and also to have ideological consequences and to be open to manipulation in some circumstances (but not without limits).

Beliefs and the Dead Body in Early Modern Britain

The historian, archaeologist, or classicist looking at the past, then, does not have direct access to ‘belief’, but has instead evidence of practices. In historical periods, we have written discourse too. ‘Belief’ thus needs to be approached elliptically through the evidence of what (p. 623) people have done and said. It is therefore more useful to think about ‘belief discourses’. Belief discourses around the corpse in early modernity operate contextually and in parallel. At least four belief discourses can be distinguished:

  1. 1. Theological belief

  2. 2. Social belief

  3. 3. Scientific belief

  4. 4. Folk belief

To examine the complex and contradictory beliefs about the body I will consider the treatment of the dead in Scotland from the 16th to the 19th century. Here a number of different belief discourses operated concurrently; people made decisions about their practices based on complex awareness of context, tradition, social meaning, and personal relevance.

As in other parts of Europe the Protestant Reformation in Scotland was a long and untidy process rather than a single event. However, the adoption of the Scottish Confession of Faith by the Reformation parliament, together with the passage of legislation rejecting Papal authority, made the year 1560 particularly momentous and it is therefore often considered to be in 1560 that the Scottish Reformation ‘happened’.

The Protestant Reformation had far-reaching consequences in many areas of practice. In particular Protestant rejection of the late medieval Catholic doctrine of Purgatory (LeGoff 1990) meant that at the moment of death the fate of the soul was irrevocably decided: no amount of prayers, masses, intercessions, holy water, papal bulls, or pilgrimage tokens could change anything (Marshall 2002). Catholic beliefs in the efficacy of burial ‘ad sanctos’ (close to the bodies or relics of saints) and in the hierarchy of holiness, represented spatially as distance from the altar, were denounced as quasi-superstitious distractions. In England burial beneath the church floor continued after the Reformation anyway—it remained popular with those members of congregations who could afford it and was a useful source of income for the parish. Reformed Scots, however, were stricter in their doctrine. Several ordinances of the Church of Scotland reconfirmed that burials should occur outside the church (called ‘kirk’ in Scotland; this word refers, like ‘church’ in English, to both the building and, when capitalized, the institution). Wealthy and well-born families who had previously enacted their superior social status through the purchase of burial plots (‘lairs’) under the church floor began to construct mausolea or ‘burial aisles’ in the graveyard instead. Andrew Spicer (2000) discusses the construction of new edifices and the reorganization of structures that were formerly part of the church building to form family mausolea in conformity with Kirk rules. Spicer records the mausoleum of Sir James Melville at Halhill, Fife, who died in 1609. Included in his inscription is the exhortation:

  • Repent amend on Christ the burden cast
  • Of your sad sinnes who can your sauls refresh
  • Syne raise from grave to gloir your grislie flesh
  • Defyle not Christ's kirk with your carrion
  • A solemn sait for God's service prepar’d
  • For praier; preaching and communion
  • Your byrial should be in the kirk yard

(Spicer 2000: 149)

(p. 624) However, we should not suppose that Melville's ostentatious adherence to Church of Scotland orthodoxy meant that Protestant ‘beliefs’ about the appropriate place of burial were uncontested in Scotland. Archaeological excavation has revealed that the continuing use of pre-Reformation burial places after 1560 was not uncommon, even when this involved the use of intra-mural vaults or strongly ‘Catholic’ places, suggesting that, whatever the Church might maintain, many people still preferred to bury their dead in ‘holy’ ground. Balmerino Abbey, also in Fife, contains a number of post-Reformation burials below the floor of the nave (Kenworthy 1980) and Glasgow Cathedral has numerous post-medieval burials in the nave and crossing (Driscoll 2002).

Recent work has also identified in Scotland the popular use of folk burial grounds outside the control of the Church. The post-medieval use of abandoned early ecclesiastical monuments, archaeological remains, and natural places for the burial of unbaptized babies, strangers, and suicides is well-known in Catholic Ireland where such places are known as cilliní (Finlay 2000, Donnelly and Murphy 2008). Cilliní are burial grounds totally outside the control of the church, and were typically used for the interment of those whose status or manner of death excluded them from a normal Christian burial. Cilliní burials are often unmarked, or marked only by field stones. The placing of lumps of quartz in or on the grave is common at such sites. In recent years a number of such locations have also been identified in the west of Britain, such as at Tintagel in Cornwall, where a ruined medieval church contained the later burials of a number of babies in stone-lined cists or slate tents, marked with quartz pebbles (Nowakowski and Thomas 1992, Cherryson et al. 2011), and McCabe (2010) has tentatively identified at least 20 in western Scotland. The isolated, but memorialized, burial of a 2-day-old child on a hillside on Colonsay (Ponsford 2000: 326) could also be interpreted within the cillín tradition. There are interesting parallels with the women's cemetery at St Ronan's parish church, Iona (O’Sullivan 1994). Single-sex cemeteries are rare in the British Isles and generally relate to closed religious orders and are medieval in date. The St Ronan's cemetery is unusual in being post-medieval. Interestingly several of the grave fills there also contained white quartz pebbles.

The kirk-defiling ‘carrion’ of Melville's tomb was not the only way of understanding the dead body in post-medieval Scotland. Not only was the desire to place the body in special ground evident in the popular re-use of special places, but the early modern landscape, especially in the western Gaelic-speaking areas, was populated by the numinous sluagh síth—fairy people who were often identified with the spirits of the dead. Seventeenth-century cleric Robert Kirk described how they inhabited special mounds adjacent to kirkyards, and took on bodies of ‘congealed air’ when they wished to travel about. The síth are the souls of the dead, temporarily without their earthly bodies until the Resurrection restores them to their corporeal bodies. What is interesting about Kirk's account of the ‘secret common-wealth’ of the dead, written in 1690–1, is his attempt to reconcile the belief system of folklore with conventional Protestant theology. Kirk believed absolutely in the fairy world, but did not see the existence of ghosts, fairies, and ‘second sight’ as contradictory to Christianity. A Church of Scotland minister, Kirk advanced the idea that fairies were ‘a degree of Angels …with bodies of air condensd and curiously shapt’ (Kirk 1976: 83) and their occasional appearance to living people should be seen as ‘the courteous endeavours of our fellow creaturs in the invisible world to convince us (in opposition to Sadducees, Socinians and Atheists) of a Dietie, of Spirits’ (Kirk 1976: 82). In taking such a line, Kirk was opposing those who—especially earlier in the 17th century—had seen any form of communication with supernatural beings other than God as witchcraft, and indeed punishable by death.

(p. 625) In early modern Scotland the dead lived on as more than memories or divine souls. Not only did they invisibly throng the inhabited landscape in bodies of ‘congealed air’, they also in some circumstances remained active social agents in their corporeal form. The conviction of Phillip Standsfield for the murder of his father in Edinburgh in 1688 is an example of how even a dead body could act physically to have real effects in the living world (Anon. 1688). According to the accounts delivered at his trial, Philip Standsfield was a young man from a wealthy family, who had fallen into dissolute, impious, and dishonest ways and had by the time of his indictment for murder already been imprisoned for various offences. Philip's father, James, had finally decided to disinherit him in favour of his younger brother. To prevent this Philip strangled his father and dumped his body in the water to make it appear that James had drowned. When the body was discovered, Philip had it hastily buried, but at the instigation of suspicious friends and relatives the body was disinterred for medical inspection. Philip himself helped to lift the body from its coffin and, when he did so, blood from his father's body ‘sprung out’ upon Philip, who lost his composure and had to sit down and take a medical cordial (‘treacle water’ in one account). The prosecutors at his trial made much of the ‘wonderful’ way that God had revealed the murderer through the active power of the corpse to indict the guilty person. Philip was found guilty and hanged.

Unlike the secret commonwealth of the dead described by Kirk, the corpse as judicial witness cannot be interpreted as a minority belief of the remote, Gaelic west; it was described and considered by the urban Establishment of Edinburgh, and is in fact known across much of northern Europe. Even luminaries of the European Enlightenment held beliefs about the dead body that were not entirely scientifically derived. William Harvey, the celebrated 17th-century anatomist and the first person to describe the circulation of the blood, was not the only member of the progressive scientific and medical elite to advocate the touch of the hand of a newly hanged man as a cure for tumours of the neck (Hunter and MacAlpine 1958).

Indeed, the social history of early modern Scotland rightly emphasizes the great influence of Scottish philosophers, scientists, and thinkers in the European Enlightenment, especially those in the city of Edinburgh. The Enlightenment is conventionally considered to be the period when religious or superstitious beliefs based on tradition and authority were supplanted by scientific ones based on observation and rationality. In tracing the history of beliefs about the dead body in Scotland, therefore, the emergence of a scientific and rational understanding of a modern, medical body should be expected to be particularly evident in the social history of this period. Indeed, having seen James Young Simpson's pioneering and wonderful use of chloroform in surgery and Joseph Lister's development of antisepsis during the 19th, Edinburgh was known as a world-leading city in the history of medicine.

In order to build a scientific knowledge of a medicalized person the empirical observation and exploration of the body was essential. For reasons both practical and humane, in an age before anaesthetic the exploration and documentation of the body's interior needed to be carried out on a cadaver. Given the theological consensus on the insignificance of the dead body, one might expect that there would have been little objection to its post-mortem dissection for the sake of medical science. In fact precisely the opposite was true. Anatomists and medical students were desperately short of research material. In good capitalist style, therefore, this niche in the market was filled by entrepreneurial ‘resurrection men’ who stole the recently dead from mortuaries and graveyards. Anxiety and outrage at the theft and dissection of the dead was manifest in public riots and a raft of material measures designed to protect the (p. 626) corpse. Vulnerable urban burial grounds were supplied with watchtowers, heavy stone or iron ‘jankers’ that covered new graves; and iron ‘mortsafes’ (Fig. 34.2) protected the lair. Coffins themselves were fortified with iron bars and extra shells of lead. Archaeological evidence is more eloquent on the fear of grave robbing than on the actual practice itself, although south of the border there are convincing instances of ‘resurrection’ having taken place at the Kingston upon Thames Quaker burial ground (Bashford and Sibun 2007) and Spitalfields church vaults in London (Reeve and Adams 1993).

 Belief and the Archaeology of DeathClick to view larger

fig. 34.2 Mortsafe from St Mary's, Holystone, Scotland

Notes: This iron cage was designed to go deep into the grave around the newly buried coffin and thus to keep the burial safe from grave-robbers.

Source: Photograph courtesy of John Dalrymple.

Despite all the measures taken to safeguard the fresh corpse, however, anatomists were still able to access subjects for dissection. At one notorious extreme in the late 1820s, the body suppliers Burke and Hare were able to cut through the problems of robbing graves or bribing undertakers by murdering people on the margins of society in order to supply the Edinburgh medical market. Public outrage at the dissection of the dead, and the particular horror of the Burke and Hare murders, led directly to the passage of the 1832 ‘Anatomy Act’ regulating the supply of dead bodies (Richardson 1988). Even before this date, however, measures were taken (p. 627) to restore the dissected body to an appearance of wholeness before burial. Archaeological excavations at Infirmary Street and Surgeons’ Square (Henderson et al. 1996) in Edinburgh revealed that autopsied or dissected bodies had been restored to a more normal appearance before burial, the cranial cap being replaced and the scalp reattached to the skull of a young woman at the Infirmary Street site, for example. In this we see some of the intersections or co-extensions of belief. Emerging medical science of the time operated under a controlling metaphor of body as a machine, whose workings were complex but could be understood by careful examination of its architecture and engineering. The paradigm of the medical body emerged as a universal kind of human body, the mechanisms of which were the same from person to person, and subject to the same kinds of pathologies (Sawday 1995). This supplanted the medieval humeral body whose make-up varied according to type and could be predicted by its character and treated accordingly. Any body could therefore be a medical body; and the personal identity of the cadaver on the dissection table should not be relevant. Yet in the 17th-century Netherlands, the biographies of the individuals condemned to dissection for the sake of anatomical science were in fact crucial to their interpretation. The two cadavers featured in Rembrandt's best-known paintings of anatomists at work, the Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicholaes Tulp (1632) and the (incomplete) Anatomy Lesson of Dr Joan Deyman (1656) were those of notorious murderers Adriaen Adriaenszoon and Joris Fonteyn (Sawday 1995: 154, Lakke 1998). The practice of anatomy was not a disinterested investigation of the human body, but was also many other things: part of a biographical narrative of crime and punishment; a memento mori (anatomy theatres were typically adorned with motifs and mottos that emphasized death, rather than the operation of life); a prurient and deterrent spectacle for non-specialist onlookers; and an opportunity to see the parts of people normally hidden (Sawday (1995) has noted the semi-sexual thrill which the processes of exposure and opening up induced in the audience—and it is certainly true that the dissection of female bodies—those which were normally the most veiled and protected—were particularly popular public events).


This brief survey of beliefs about the dead body in post-medieval Scotland demonstrates the complex, multiple, and contradictory nature of belief. We have seen several different strands of belief about the dead body, some of which were developed in orthodox religion; others in folk practice or in emerging medical science. We have also examined the incompatibilities between different systems: if the dead body was only worthless carrion, and its exploration brought valuable advances to medical science, why was there such strong popular resistance to dissection? And if the dead body was only inert matter, how could it indict a murderer or cure a cancer? It is important to note that these different kinds of beliefs were not owned by different groups within society, so that all educated medical men took a scientific view, all peasants took a ‘folkloric’ one, and so on. Instead those different discourses were available at the same time and were contextually relevant, so the multi-modality of belief could be evident within groups, classes, and even individuals.

This case study considers a period of the past for which we are fortunate to have extensive surviving evidence, historical as well as archaeological. This makes it easier to see the (p. 628) complex ways that belief affects the disposal of the dead body. However, even in periods for which the evidence is thinner and interpretation requires more work, there are wider, portable conclusions. First, the expression and reproduction of belief through material practice means that beliefs are within the legitimate purview of archaeologists. Second, our expectations of coherence and the search for a singular, ultimate, and ‘true’ belief structure in the past needs to be critically addressed and probably abandoned. Contradictions in material practice do not mean that postulated belief is ‘wrong’—merely that it might not be relevant in all contexts.

As Fogelin observes in this volume, ‘The relationship between religious theology and ritual practice is always infused with disjuncture and contradiction’. We can extend his comment to embrace not only religious theology, but also other kinds of social, scientific, and popular practice. The study of beliefs about death in the past is a difficult business. Belief, like emotion, resides in the most inaccessible and interior parts of the human mind—and its interpretation even in a modern context is not easy. However, it also resides in the relationships between people, and between people and their material worlds; it resides in their practices and is evident in the care they take with dead bodies, with places of burial, and with the ways that people are remembered. As long as the complexities and contradictions of beliefs about the dead are considered to be normal—and interesting—rather than evidence of our failure to make a proper interpretation, the study of belief and the dead will continue to be a significant and rewarding area of archaeological study.

Suggested Further Reading

Suggested Further Reading

Note: Because there is little direct archaeological discussion of belief, except as a synonym for religion, this section is necessarily brief.

Insoll, T. 2004. Are Archaeologists afraid of Gods? Some Thoughts on Archaeology and Religion. In: T. Insoll (ed.) Belief in the Past: The Proceedings of the 2002 Manchester Conference on Archaeology and Religion. British Archaeological Reports, International Series 1212. Oxford: Archaeopress: 1–6.Find this resource:

    A discussion of religion in archaeology and arcaheologists’ reluctance to deal with belief in the past.

    Kirk, R. 1976 [written 1690/1]. The Secret Common-Wealth and a Short Treatise of Charms and Spells, edited and with a commentary by Stewart Sanderson. London: The Folklore Society.Find this resource:

      A classic text of the 17th century, exemplifying how different belief discourses (in this case folkloric and theological) might be articulated.

      Sawday, J. 1995. The Body Emblazoned. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

        A cultural study of the prevalent metaphors of body belief in early modern writing in English, tracing the overlaps and contradictions in poetic, scientific, and quotidian figurative language.

        Taylor, T. 2002. The Buried Soul: How Humans Invented Death. London: Fourth Estate.Find this resource:

          A fascinating, wonderful, idiosyncratic, and very wide-ranging exploration of the many, complex, and contradictory meanings with which death and the dead are invested in the past and in the present.

          Veyne, P. 1983. Les Grecs ont-ils cru à leurs mythes? Paris: Editions du Seuil.Find this resource:

            An influential study by an ancient historian of the multi-modality of belief.

            Additional References

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