Mortuary Analysis

I. Mortuary analysis -- why?

The vast bulk of material remains from Early Iron Age Europe was found in tombs. Exceptions include objects from unclear find contexts, those from hoards or river deposits, sparse finds from the few excavated settlements, later La Tène period finds from fortified oppida or from Viereckschanzen, and the enigmatic contexts of the finds from La Tène itself. This study examines goods from both Hallstatt and La Tène A period "Princely" tombs. In sections dealing with individual burials or objects, specific interpretive theories are presented and discussed; thus, I will not repeat the examinations of those tomb contexts here. Instead, this section ("Mortuary Analysis") offers a brief outline of my general approach to the interpretation of "Celtic" funerary assemblages; it complements the individual interpretations and explains their theoretical underpinnings. First, a short outline of the different aspects of "Celtic" life whose interpretation relies on the evidence of tomb objects and contexts demonstrates the importance of the funerary assemblages and a methodological approach to them. Then these areas are reviewed again to identify problems specific to the interpretation of objects in "Celtic" burials.

II. Areas of interpretation, basic facts and underlying assumptions

a. Individual identification. Early "Celtic" burials are generally inhumations, but some include cremations; multiple burials are not uncommon. The size, age, constitution, and sex of the deceased can be determined by osteological analysis. Age and sex are particularly important elements in interpretations based on archaeological or ethnographic parallels, since they "are recognized as primary axes of mortuary differentiation" (O'Shea 1984, 42).

b. Ethnic and cultural identity. I speak of "Celtic" burials; the identification of a burial as "Celtic" depends on geographic location, tomb architecture, and certain types, combinations and styles of funerary goods (summarized in Wait 1995, 500-505). Further interpretation relies on the accuracy of that initial identification, which in turn presupposes that ethnic and/or cultural identity can be determined on the basis of the material mortuary evidence. In this as in the following categories, a very basic assumption is that the archaeological record preserves enough material information for us to make these determinations today.

c. Class and wealth. A Fürstengrab, or "Princely tomb," is by archaeological convention a wood-clad chamber tomb under a tumulus, including a wheeled vehicle, imports, and a rich assemblage of banqueting vessels. The type of burial, its architecture and the opulence of the goods directly contribute to any determination of the wealth and/or economic status of the deceased (and/or burying group). The assumption here is that the level of opulence of goods allocated to a particular burial reproduces that available to the deceased while in life.

d. Social role and social structure. In the words of O'Shea's Corollary 3b, "The specific treatment accorded an individual in death will be consistent with that individual's social position in life" (1984, 36). Looking beyond the personal level of the individual burial, determination of one person's social role simultaneously arises out of and contributes to our conception of the social context in which the individual functioned, and its structure. The interpretations discussed under Hellenization model are based almost exclusively on evidence from funerary contexts; thus, the reconstruction of a prestige-goods economy involving the control and distribution of luxury imports among a paramount chief and vassal chiefs (Frankenstein & Rowlands 1978) is based on observation of the presence or absence of specific goods in specific tombs.

e. Interaction. The presence and distribution of luxury imports in tombs are used in reconstructions of local and regional interaction. The central tenet of the Hellenization model involves the interaction between Iron Age Europe and the Mediterranean lands of origin of those imports. It is assumed that tomb assemblages incorporating local and imported goods demonstrate wide-ranging interactions, both in terms of trade and of interregional politics, in life.

f. Habits and practices. Drinking horns, vessels for food and drink, a couch, wagons, weapons, etc., are all used in some manner in life, as well as being deposited in tombs. There is a tendency to assume that a specific burial context reflects, and thus can be used to reconstruct, the life context (drinking, reclining, use of wagons).

g. Beliefs. It is assumed that, to some extent, what is in a burial has to do with death and the afterlife. Thus, examination of a funerary assemblage contributes to the reconstruction of the religious world of the culture of the deceased, particularly its rituals and beliefs in the afterlife. This assumption is potentially at odds with (f) above, in that each asserts its own claims to the symbolic reference of burial goods.

h. Chronology and style. Objects found in closed tomb contexts are assumed to be "contemporary in the living society at the time of interment" (O'Shea's Principle 4, 1984, 37). Laboratory methods can provide approximate absolute dates. The art historian, through stylistic comparison of objects, develops a relative chronology. Allowing the time required for an import to make its way into a "Celtic" tomb, these two methods are combined to establish and refine the chronology of Hallstatt and early La Tène style.

III. Problems specific to the interpretation of objects in "Celtic" burials

The difficulties addressed here can be attributed in part to the lack of consensus on a methodological approach to mortuary analysis among archaeologists. In fact, as Härke wrote in 1989,

One of the most crass examples of the lack of communication between German prehistorians and their Anglo-American colleagues withinin the past twenty years is found in the area of mortuary analysis. Since the sixties, two completely separate theoretical discussions on the subject of the analysis and sociological interpretation of graves and necropoleis have been going on. (note 1; 185)

The situation has not changed much in the intervening eight years. English-speaking scholars at the forefront of theoretical developments continue to construct their models in virtual isolation from the German-speaking scholars actually excavating and publishing tombs. Since any theory can only be as useful as the data on which it is based, it is to be hoped that an increased sensitivity to the questions posed by archaeological theory will improve the datasets recorded and disseminated by the excavators. At the same time, we can look forward to refinements in interpretation as more and better information becomes available.

a. Individual identification. The sex, age, size, cause of death, etc. can be determined by anthropological examination of the remains. It is only recently that "Celtic" inhumations have undergone such examination, however; moreover, the poor state of preservation makes it extremely difficult in many cases. The traditional approaches of Vorgeschichte have placed little weight on physical anthropology. Most burials have been "sexed" on the basis of the presence or absence of types of finds assumed to be associated with one sex or the other -- weapons for men, jewelry for women, etc. (for a recent example, see the Glauberg.) In a completely circular argument, interpretations of gender-specific grave goods are based on the identification of the burial's sex on the basis of those same goods. The Dürrnberg offers examples of burials where the anthropological sex of the deceased conflicts with the paradigm and is thus disregarded in favor of assemblage-based sexing. As a result of this history, gender identification and relations remain largely unexplored issues in "Celtic" studies, which will benefit greatly from current and future excavations incorporating anthropological analysis, including osteological sexing of remains. In addition, as we learn more about the physical remains, comparisons with burial practices of other and better-known cultures and periods become more possible. At this point, we do not have the statistical evidence to state with certainty that any specific type of object is clearly or exclusively associated with either biological sex, with a specific age group, or with remains that share any other physical and archaeologically retrievable traits.

b. Ethnic and cultural identity is again an issue susceptible to circular argument: certain grave goods are used to identify the ethnicity of the burial; because these goods are found in "Celtic" graves, they are deemed "Celtic" and used in turn to identify further tombs as "Celtic." A problem is raised by mixed assemblages; tombs in Northern Italy and Trebeniste, for example, contain objects that may be used to associate the deceased with two or more cultural groups. In addition to the general difficulties in identifying the place of origin of specific finds (e.g., the Vix torc), in defining cultural groups, and in correlating specific

Iron, bronze & coral helmet found at Canosa di Puglia. 4th c. BCE.
Berlin: Staatliche Museen. After Moscati 1991, 200.

objects with specific cultural groups, the tomb context raises its own questions. For example, a man wearing a "Celtic" helmet would generally be considered a Celt; the same helmet in a tomb context may identify the deceased as "Celtic," if found in "Celtic" lands, but is interpreted very differently in a South Italian tomb containing mainly Western Greek and Italian objects. A large-scale osteological investigation, such as that at the later La Tène oppidum of Manching in Bavaria, claims to be able to identify the ethnic makeup of the population by broadly differentiating between skull types typical of peoples living north of the Alps and those typical of the Mediterranean (Gebhard 1995, Lange 1983, 79). Manching is an oppidum or fortified military and commercial installation; ca. 400 skeletons were found in the settlement and far fewer in funerary contexts (Lange 1983, Krämer 1985). Similar large-scale investigations have yet to be undertaken for cemetery complexes and for the earlier periods. The results, while informative in each particular case, do not amount to a physical demonstration of ethnic or racial identities, nor of their physical interaction. Nevertheless, any information about the demography and physical properties of those buried in "Celtic" tombs would greatly enrich our interpretations.

c. Class and wealth. It seems obvious to conclude that a rich funerary assemblage indicates the wealth of the deceased. However, a moment's reflection and consideration of ethnographic and historical evidence reveals that one may by no means expect an exact correspondence. A burying group may accord the deceased a level of opulence far above or below that enjoyed in life for religious, polemical, political or other purposes which would be invisible in the material record. The contemporary culture with which the Celts are most often compared, the Greeks, provide literary as well as archaeological evidence of this disparity. Morris (1992) and Whitley (1991) demonstrate that wealth expended on Greek burials need not correspond to the deceased's wealth at all -- this is striking in the examples of large amounts of money expended on tombs for mistresses (e.g., Morris 1992, 138). Indeed, both Whitley's and Morris's reconstructions of the symbolic use of expenditure on funerary display require the control and manipulation of such expenditure by the burying group. As a result, restraint in funerary display may correspond to higher social status and lavish display to lower status (e.g., Morris 1992, 148). Ethnographic comparisons reveal that a great deal of expenditure on funerary display leaves no archaeological evidence behind -- indeed, funerary rituals from Homeric games to processions, banquets, public displays of emotion, and offerings of textiles, body adornment and other ephemeral materials usually do not survive in the archaeological record (e.g., Metcalf and Huntington 1991; but see Hochdorf). Thus, the degree of opulence evident in a tomb reliably demonstrates the amount of wealth expended on permanent architecture, furnishings and goods by the burying group; but it cannot be assumed to represent the entire expenditure on that individual's death rituals, nor does it by itself reveal the wealth or class status of the deceased.

d. Social role and social structure. It follows that a reconstruction of social structure based on tomb configuration requires some caution. The terminology used to describe the burials and the buried reveals the traditional ideas about identifiable social roles: we read of princely tombs or "Fürstengräber," of warriors' tombs (Kriegergräber), while the corresponding female burials tend to be called simply "Frauengräber." In the case of a tumulus with central chamber burial and associated, more modest inhumations, we assume that the central tomb contains the leader or "prince," while the subsidiary burials may be lesser nobles, subsidiary chiefs, or family members. However, these constellations (e.g., Vix or Hochdorf) have not been studied precisely enough to support any such conclusions. For example, the area around Mont Lassois with its extremely lavish, apparently female-dominated burials may be the center of a distinctive local or regional social system. In addition, settlement archaeology may provide information needed to determine the relationship of burials to nearby Fürstensitze at a specific place and time. Finally, our lack of knowledge about the varieties of local internal social structures and hierarchies precludes our certain identification of any single burial as that of, say, a princess, a noblewoman, or a priestess -- for these reasons, burials cannot in turn be used unquestioningly to reconstruct the social structures.

e. Interaction. The Hellenization model relies on the presence of imports in Fürstengräber as the basis for its view of both interaction with the Mediterranean and internal social structures. It is important to remember that a specific item in a funerary assemblage reveals nothing about its acquisition, whether by trade or as a gift, whether within a local exchange system or directly from the place of origin. Such objects do not in themselves provide evidence of the social status of the deceased, his/her social role, or the role of the object in the local or regional economical and social structures. Thus the question of interaction with the Mediterranean is raised by these imports; it cannot be answered solely by reference to the same imports, but must consider the interpretation of the imports within their local context, and most immediately in the tomb context.

f. Habits and practices. Examples of both indigenous goods and imports show signs of use before deposition in the tomb. Exceptions include the gold foil jewelry and other items clearly manufactured for the Hochdorf Fürstengrab at the tumulus site. Items that show use are proper objects of inquiry into their functions before deposition in the tomb. However, their tomb context is also significant and should not be overlooked in such interpretations. For example, the fact that the Hochdorf prince reclines on a couch in his tomb is not evidence of reclining banquets among living Celts; both the form of the couch (not a kline) and literary evidence suggest that the Celts drank in a sitting position (see "Celtic" Trinkfest).To postulate "Celtic" desire to emulate Greek drinking customs, based on the funerary evidence alone, is to deny the funerary nature of the assemblage.

It is a degree more logical to use an assemblage to reconstruct mortuary ritual; however, to see the presence of wagons or chariots in "Celtic" tombs as evidence of a kind of "Celtic" ekphora, in imitation of Greek rites, again ignores both the absence of such wagons in Greek burials, and the complete dissimilarity between the burial forms of both cultures.

g. Beliefs. In reconstructing beliefs about death and the afterlife, we are hampered by the problem that many aspects of death ritual have no lasting material aspect (Metcalf & Huntington 1991). In interpreting the material finds, we cannot always determine their life or death reference. Gold ornaments constructed on the spot and only applied to the corpse after death (Hochdorf) are unequivocal indicators of a desire on the part of the buriers to enhance the value and beauty of the deceased's accoutrements. Drinking horns, on the other hand, may have been fashioned for the deceased's use in the afterlife, or they may have been used by him or others in life, or used by the mourners in a funerary banquet and retained in the tomb. The presence of alcoholic beverages in the tomb may point to a possible use for the horns after death; such juxtapositions, and the number of examples, tempt us to recreate scenarios of the Totenmahl -- yet we must remain aware that material goods can reveal with certainty only their presence and placement, or their absence.

h. Chronology and style. Tomb goods are the primary evidence for establishing archaeological chronology. Imports play a key role, in that they provide relatively secure absolute termini post quem (Dehn and Frey 1979). This chronology is only as accurate as the dates of the imports, many of which are themselves dated by relative stylistic chronology. Hochdorf provides an example where "Celtic" fibula and Western Greek lion attachment chronologies are at odds. In discussing internal Hallstatt and La Tène stylistic development, I will use the chronologies developed by scholars based on the evidence from "Celtic" tombs; in doing so, I remain aware of the insecure nature of the underlying Western Greek and Etruscan chronologies, as well as the impossibility of determining how long it took for the imports to arrive in their final resting place.

IV. Conclusions

Because of the nature of the material, the interpretations discussed and offered in this study are based largely on mortuary analysis. The context of an archaeological find is important, whether it be a domestic context where it may have been forgotten or abandoned, or whether it be the result of deliberate placement in a hoard, ritual deposit or tomb. The context of burial carries with it particular complexities, as its significance in the society, lives and belief systems of the community is expressed in different ways on each individual burial.

The degrees of certainty of interpretation decrease the farther the observer is removed from the individual context. Funerary assemblages of living cultures and those who have left extensive literary records can still present ambiguities; when we study a non-literate culture, it is all the more important to keep in mind that the material record is always incomplete, and that many aspects of burial leave no archaeological traces behind.

This short survey cannot resolve these questions. By outlining the problems, I hope to recall to mind the mortuary context of most of the objects in this study and its importance in arriving at interpretational models.