Arts, Bodies, Crafts, Death… A Class on Funerary Practices

Recently myself and a fellow PhD student, Stephanie Evelyn-Wright, have been co-teaching a Lifelong Learning module about various concepts in osteoarchaeology. Our module is called “Skeletons, Stories, and Social Bodies” and we wanted to try and give our students a brief introduction to some of the key concepts and ideas, while still giving students plenty of time to handle human skeletal remains. This was going to be a challenge, but hopefully one we have risen to and conquered successfully.

Last night’s class was on “Funerary Practices Through the Ages”, which was a bit of a challenge to address in one class. As someone who researches Neanderthal funerary practices, we obviously began with the origins of mourning and burial in the Palaeolithic (and a short rant about how people think Neanderthals are stupid, but that is an entirely different issue). After an introduction to different types of funerary practices, we had a brief discussion on what grave goods could tell us about the individual before moving onto our activity.

I wasn’t sure if this arts and crafts style activity was going to go down well with a group of adults, but it appeared to go down rather well! Their task was to take a skeleton, mark out a ‘grave’ cut, and then use the box of goodies (grave goods) to create a burial. They had to design it as if they were burying the individual, and then the rest of the class would try and interpret the burial using the grave goods. The results were really interesting – and some were very amusing! (Lots of pictures at the end of what was created by the students)

Over several months I started collecting this stuff together, which I thought could be used for outreach or teaching. Here is a small selection of what I managed to gather together:

Photo 11-06-2015 12 20 13

The skeletons were from Amazon UK – they’re the Learning Resources Simply Skeletons, and they were the perfect size for this activity. They’re really easy to take apart and put back together, so they work well whether you want an articulated individual or dismembered remains!

The variety of grave goods are cheap odds and ends collected from shops like Wilkos, pound stores, Sainsburys, The Works, etc. Most were found in the arts and craft section or the kids party sections, where you’ll usually find good deals like 3 for 2. (Every week my husband got used to hearing “I’ll meet you over by the till, I’m going to search for grave goods!”) The collection includes:

  • Animals – Rubbers in the shape of a cow, horse, and pig, as well as some Easter themed sheep decorations
  • Plastic jewellery – rings, brooches, etc.
  • Tea cups and saucers
  • Bottles
  • Flowers – beads and the paper/craft variety
  • Combs
  • Recorder – although not to scale!
  • Feathers
  • Buttons
  • Medals and cups
  • Bottle tops – typically used as shields
  • Pipe cleaners – perfect for pretty much anything else you’ve forgotten to include. The gold sparkly one was made into a crown, for example.

You could pretty much include anything, but there will always be something missing. If you include paper or some pipe cleaners they can make up pretty much anything else though!

The aim of the exercise was to get students to understand the problems with trying to interpret the meaning and symbolism of the grave goods included in a grave, and to understand that the living make decisions about the funeral, not necessarily the dead. At the end we had a discussion about what each of our ‘burials’ meant, and how their ideas about funerary practices and grave goods had changed.

I also asked them to bring in a potential ‘grave good’ for themselves, something that could potentially represent them in a burial. They found this quite difficult, but was an interesting idea and really made us all think. One student brought in her gardening equipment and her favourite necklace made by her husband, and another brought in an Egyptian style statue and her cat’s ashes. Again, it sparked an interesting discussion about grave goods and about the potential future of funerary practices.

So I’ll end by leaving you with a selection of the ‘burials’ which were created by the students. Most were made to be amusing rather than to create a particular burial or funerary custom, but it was interesting to see and we all had a good time trying to interpret them.

Shepherd buried with some of his award winning flock and some of his prized possessions.

Shepherd buried with some of his award winning flock and some of his prized possessions.

Female skeleton buried with flowers, her favourite tea cup, and her horse. Society believed it was necessary to remove the head to release the spirit.

Female skeleton buried with flowers, her favourite tea cup, and her horse. Society believed it was necessary to remove the head to release the spirit.

King and Queen buried together, holding hands. Buried with several shields to display their wealth. Died fairly close together, but the class was unable to determine if one died then the other of loneliness, or if one killed the other...

King and Queen buried together, holding hands. Buried with several shields to display their wealth. Died fairly close together, but the class was unable to determine if one died then the other of loneliness, or if one killed the other…

A deviant burial - a witch, buried on the outskirts away from the others.

A deviant burial – a witch, buried on the outskirts away from the others.

Individual buried in a barrel. Apparently an anomaly, so we're unsure if this was an accident or a joke on behalf of the people who buried him.

Individual buried in a barrel. Apparently an anomaly, so we’re unsure if this was an accident or a joke on behalf of the people who buried him.

Female warrior, buried with her horse and favourite belongings.

Female warrior, buried with her horse and favourite belongings.

Individual buried in a barrel. Apparently an anomaly, so we're unsure if this was an accident or a joke on behalf of the people who buried him.

Individual buried in a barrel. Apparently an anomaly, so we’re unsure if this was an accident or a joke on behalf of the people who buried him.

This was a military barber - although we're unsure of the meaning of the purple combs!

This was a military barber – although we’re unsure of the meaning of the purple combs!

This was a military barber - although we're unsure of the meaning of the purple combs!

This was a military barber – although we’re unsure of the meaning of the purple combs!

Male skeleton. Medal winning rowing champion by day, drag queen by night!

Male skeleton. Medal winning rowing champion by day, drag queen by night!

Buried in situ at a feast!

Buried in situ at a feast!

Two dismembered individuals subjected to funerary caching. Offerings of tea and beads at the front, and flowers by the two heads at the top. Joined by their (intact) horse.

Two dismembered individuals subjected to funerary caching. Offerings of tea and beads at the front, and flowers by the two heads at the top. Joined by their (intact) horse.

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