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Transformations in Death: The Archaeology of Funerary Practices and Personhood in the Bronze Age Levant


Burials in the Middle and Late Bronze Age Levant (ca. 2000-1200 B.C.E.) exhibit a high degree of mortuary diversity and experimentation with body disposal methods in primary, secondary, and co-mingled inhumations. Previous research has explained the process of multiple-successive burial as a result of the functional need to make room inside of a re-used burial space such as a chamber tomb. This explanation misses the opportunity to investigate the social and ritual meaning of repeated, close contact with the corporeal remains of the deceased after death and burial. Indeed, written sources from the ancient Near East attest to the existence of posthumous persons such as ancestors, ghosts, and the deified dead. Therefore, this dissertation poses four research questions to investigate the roles of the dead body and person in funerary rituals of the second millennium B.C.E. Levant: (1) What is the status of the dead after burial? (2) What roles do the corpse play in the funerary sequence? (3) What do textual sources and mortuary practices reveal about relationships between the post-mortem body and person? (4) Under what circumstances does personhood continue or transform after death?

The treatment of the dead body determines the posthumous social roles of the deceased after burial and explains the high degree of burial diversity of the Middle and Late Bronze Age Levant. This work combines theoretical frameworks of personhood and embodiment with methods derived from mortuary archaeology, specifically funerary taphonomy, biological profiles of age and sex, and distributions of burial type, architecture, context, and grave goods. Drawing from a broad mortuary dataset from across the Levant, including three mortuary case studies from Tel Megiddo (Israel), patterns of deposition and corpse modification in residential burials are identified. These results are compared with contemporaneous textual evidence drawn from a variety of sources across the Levant and Mesopotamia which address the dead body and person. This study presents a new model of the extended funerary sequence in residential burials of the second millennium B.C.E., asserting that the bodies of the dead were treated differently according to their membership within the household. It is also argued that repeated fragmentation and intermixing of skeletal remains in residential burials was the primary pathway to achieving ancestor status after death and burial. The results provide new insight into the society of the Bronze Age Levant, a context in which the household encompassed the living and the dead and served as the primary social unit.

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