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Neolithic and Copper Age Mortuary Practices in the Italian Peninsula: Change of Meaning or Change of Medium?

Lookup NU author(s): Professor Andrea Dolfini


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The goal of this paper is to reassess the changes in mortuary practices that occurred in the Italian peninsula in the late 5th and 4th millennia BC, at the transition between Neolithic and Copper Age (or Chalcolithic). For much of the Neolithic, burial was carried out within the nucleated village in the form of a fairly simple performance, which started with the interment of an articulated body and ended, in most cases, with the disturbance of the grave and the scattering of the dry bones. In the late and final Neolithic, however, burial was increasingly undertaken at peripheral or otherwise distinct areas within villages, and by the early Copper Age it was almost always performed at cemeteries located in the landscape. On the one hand, disarticulation practices became increasingly complex and elaborate in this period of time, and caused most deceased to lose their individuality. On the other hand, the first richly furnished (articulated) burials made their appearance, which are normally interpreted as markers of growing social inequality. It is argued in this paper that the emergence of the cemetery and the intensification of mortuary practices do not indicate any radical change in the political structure of society. Rather, they mark a profound modification in the symbolic tool-kit used by society to express individual and group identity as well as beliefs and cosmologies concerning the human body. In other words, this is not a change in the meaning of burial per se but a change in the medium chosen by society to stress the same principles of group identity which were previously conveyed by co-residence. However, since social relations derive their meanings from the practices through which they are articulated, alterations to the manner in which burial was understood did emerge over time, which indicate that the body of the dead had become a major locus for the reproduction of prehistoric society.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Dolfini A

Editor(s): J.R. Brandt, H. Ingvaldsen, M. Prusac

Publication type: Book Chapter

Publication status: Published

Book Title: Death and Changing Rituals: Function and Meaning in Ancient Funerary Practices

Year: 2015

Volume: 7

Pages: 17-44

Acceptance date: 01/01/1900

Publisher: Oxbow

Place Published: Oxford, UK


Library holdings: Search Newcastle University Library for this item

ISBN: 9781782976394