All Saints Church Highweek from the graveyard

A recent article in The Telegraph claimed that ‘pagan’ Britons are reverting to Iron Age burial customs, which got us thinking – are the motives and beliefs behind modern burial practices really all that different to those of past societies? And what will future archaeologists make of our own?

According to the Telegraph, Iron Age burial practices are on trend. Interesting, you might think, so people are leaving their dead out in the open to decompose? No? Cremation is on the up? Well, possibly. Oh, well then perhaps they mean that more people are being buried crouched in stone cists? Wrong again!

Apparently, results from a survey of undertakers (conducted as part of a wider study into modern funerary practice) reveal that there is a growing trend in people asking to be buried with their most prized possessions.

Modern Grave Goods

The types of items can range from the modest (the most popular items being packets of cigarettes, photos of family, cans of beer or bags of sweets) to the slightly more unusual; cremated remains of long deceased pets, mobile phones so that the living can continue to send messages to the deceased, and, in one instance, a cardboard cut-out of Dr Who.

Though this growing trend may seem slightly bizarre at first, when the motives behind the actions are considered, it seems what we’re actually witnessing is a continuation of burial beliefs and practices that are evident right the way through history.

The inclusion of grave goods is evident in many past societies, from ancient civilisations to the early medieval; only with the widespread rise of Christianity in the late 6th and early 7th centuries did this trend fall into a decline (though it is debated whether this decline was as much to do with economic and cultural factors as it was to do with the change in religious beliefs).

From mummies to mobile phones

The nature of the burial goods may have changed (weaponry and ‘treasure’ being replaced with phones & cigarettes), but in many cases the motives behind their interment often remain the same.

Sending off a relative with their pockets stuffed with sweets, as in one instance quoted in the article, is a modern form of the libations of wine that were offered to the deceased in Greek & Roman burial customs.

Even the growing numbers of mobile phones included in burials strongly reflect ancient burial rituals which show the human desire to continue to communicate with the deceased once they’re gone. Though this practice isn’t as extreme as, say, using mummification as a conduit to speak to the dead, the fundamental motive behind the action remains remarkably similar.

What will future archaeologists make of it?

“While in ancient Egypt and other cultures people were buried with items representing their status, modern Britons are simply buried with things which represent them personally”.

This quote towards the end of the article set us off on new train of thought – will future archaeologists attach the same great notions of meaning and significance to these modern grave goods that we ourselves have attached to those of past civilisations? Will the inclusion of all mobile phones come to be interpreted as symbols of wealth? Or will the presence of sweets be interpreted as ritualistic? Perhaps future archaeologists will overlook the more personal acts of remembrance, as we may have done with past societies, and look for a greater significance which, in some cases, doesn’t actually exist?

Though it’d be wrong to suggest that mummified animals in ancient Egyptian burials didn’t hold any ritual significance, or that Anglo-Saxon grave goods weren’t at all a reflection of the deceased social status, could it also be wrong to dismiss the idea that some historical grave goods were just placed for personal reasons, rather than political.

Who’s to say that there wasn’t one ancient Egyptian that was so fond of a pet that they had them mummified to be interred with them later? Or that Anglo-Saxons weren’t buried with an item of jewellery just because it was their favourite? It is sometimes hard to attach such emotive human attributes to people who lived such a long time ago, but this very personal approach to death is demonstrably part of human nature.

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Rosanna Ring

Rosanna is one of DigVentures' intrepid Community Archaeologists. She's busy turning Barrowed Time (our dig at Morecambe's Bronze Age burial mound) into a real seaside adventure, and getting the Pop-Up Museum on the Prom ready for you to visit!

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