No. 34




Endurance of practices: An archaeologist’s view of the death culture in Estonia thousand of years ago

14 December 2016


RiTo No. 34, 2016

The article gives an overview of the death culture of hunter-gatherers in Estonia in 6500–2600 BC. Combining the methods of archaeology, archaeothanatology and osteology, the archaeological burial sites that had been excavated decades ago were analysed. Unlike earlier analyses, the research focused on the dead body or its material remains (here: whole skeletons and separate human bones). Detailed archaethanatological description of them enables to reconstruct what the burial practices were like thousands of years ago. The primary identities of the dead were ascertained with the help of osteology and isotope studies of nutrition.

Long time perspective enables to observe both the endurance and the changes of practices. Analysis shows that although we see mainly corpse burial in archaeology, a number of different practices constituted the acceptable norm. Many of the rituals of those times remain unknown to us. The dead were buried in the territories of villages, in the cemeteries and separately away from inhabited places. Although there were differences between individual burials, it can be seen that the main contents of death culture remained almost unchanged throughout four millennia. Immediate action after death, focusing of practices on the dead body, lack of strict separation between the worlds of the living and the dead and open nature of practices, which enabled their endurance and gradual change, can be considered the unchangeable core of burial ritual.

We can learn from the time thousands of years ago that there are many ways of dealing with the dead body, and therefore we should not condemn anyone for what they choose to do with their close ones. The most important is to take death as a natural part of life.