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How to Cope with Death:

Mourning and Funerary Practices

in the Ancient Near East
Proceedings of the International Workshop
Firenze, 5th - 6th December 2013

edited by
Candida Felli

Edizioni ETS

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Il volume è pubblicato con il contributo di

OrMe (Fondazione per l’Oriente Mediterraneo)

© Copyright 2016
Edizioni ETS
Piazza Carrara, 16-19, I-56126 Pisa

Messaggerie Libri SPA
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ISBN 978-884674574-3

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Preface.................................................................................................................... 7

Candida Felli
“How to cope with death”: an introduction............................................................ 9

Adriano Favole
Robert Hertz and contemporary cremation: representation of the body
and new funerary rituals in Italy and France.......................................................... 17

Alfonso Archi
Some remarks on ethnoarchaeological and death in the Ancient Near East........... 29

Anne Löhnert
Coping with death according to the “Elegy on the Death of Nannā”..................... 49

Andrea Kucharek
Mourning and lament in Ancient Egypt ................................................................ 67

Candida Felli
Mourning and funerary practices in the Ancient Near East: an essay to bridge
the gap between the textual and the archaeological record.................................... 83

† Edgar Peltenburg
Mortuary ritual and embodied identity in North-west Syria in the 3rd millennium 133

Anne Porter
The materiality of mourning.................................................................................. 157

Glenn Schwartz
After interment/outside the tombs: some mortuary particulars at Umm el-Marra. 189

Stefano Valentini
Vaulted hypogea during the Middle Bronze Age: a perfect example
of the intra-muros multiple tomb in Mesopotamia................................................. 217

Peter Pfälzner
Royal corpses, royal ancestors and the living: the transformation
of the dead in Ancient Syria................................................................................... 241

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Joyce Nassar
The infra-urban funerary spaces: how the dead interact with the daily life at Mari
(3rd millennium-2nd millennium BC)....................................................................... 271

Arkadiusz Soltysiak
Taphonomy of human remains and mortuary archaeology:
three case studies from the Khabur triangle........................................................... 295

Jennie Bradbury and Graham Philip

The Invisible Dead Project: a methodology for ‘coping’ with the dead.................. 309

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I am sincerely pleased to present the Proceedings of the workshop held at the University
of Florence on December 5th-6th 2013, “How to Cope with Death. Mourning and Funerary
Practices in the Ancient Near East” and host it as the 5th issue in the series Ricerche di
Archeologia del Vicino Oriente.
The workshop was organized by Candida Felli in the framework of a research project
financed by the Ministero dell’Istruzione, dell’Università e della Ricerca (PRIN 2009). It
was devoted to discussing the mourning rites performed post mortem in particular periods
and areas, and was carefully planned by Candida who assessed the main issues for the con-
tributors aiming to pursue a coherent trajectory of analysis and let the debate flow among
the participants with their different perspectives and disciplines.

This workshop was not, in fact, an occasional event bringing together specialists in
funerary archaeology, but was instead conceived as a crucial step in a personal route of
the research which Candida Felli has undertaken for many years with coherence and com-
mitment, and on which she has produced a doctoral dissertation, published in the volume
Dopo la Morte (Florence 2015). This volume, despite its accurate and in-depth exami-
nation of data and the proposed innovative approach, did not exhaust her curiosity and
queries on the subject, but rather stimulated new questions opening the way for further
investigations. A new focus on rituals as repeated performances and related practices, and
the presence of recent data, encouraged her to promote a workshop as a joint effort among
scholars for confronting different approaches and various perspectives. It is now clear that
the physical burying of the corpse of the dead in a distinct space and in a definite moment
was not a final act; it was more often followed by various spatial and temporal activities
that had to provide the dead and the living, ancestors and successors with a perennial link
and eventually mutual protection. There is a significant trajectory after the death which is
composed of rites carried out in and outside the burials which were destined to create a
familial and community linkage that extended beyond death.

It is certainly a demanding task to collect consistent textual and archaeological data

from the Syrian Bronze Age sources concerning mourning rites and the post mortem per-
formances, especially when we confront them with the richer and more vivid data offered
by ethnological studies. However, the many contributions in this volume succeed in pre-
senting new evaluations as well as criticisms of this complex and definitely fascinating sub-
ject. Despite a certain variety of situations reflecting heterogeneous chronological realities
and specific cases, a quite homogeneous funerary, ideological and practical structure of
post mortem rites seems to emerge from the discussion of the workshop: corpses were ma-
nipulated, treated after time, and eventually moved to spaces either adjacent to or distant

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from the first burial; secondary burials integrated separated corpses in common spaces,
and these were also visible, exposed and the object of reiterated rites of remembrance. We
ascribe these different cases to the cult of the ancestors and the ideology of identity in a
broad term definition, but in fact they testify to a quite generalized need not to cut the
threads that linked the members of the family and community after a death. Death was a
terminal moment, but the mourning, manipulation and displacement of corpses contrib-
uted to maintaining a spiritual and even physical contact between the living and the dead,
consequently providing consolation for the loss, shortening the distance from the dead, and
relieving the angst of nothingness.

The contributions in this volume are the result of different approaches and present vari-
ous interpretations which, however, combine in showing the complexity and variety of
behaviours in the lengthy Near-Eastern trajectory of post mortem mourning rituals. To the
participants of the workshop and the present volume goes my sincere gratitude for their en-
thusiastic involvement in the debate, and to Candida for her ability to encourage and stimu-
late discussions on often difficult points. In my memory of the often vivid debates which
followed the presentations, the clarity of mind and concreteness of Edgar Peltenburg stand
out: we all miss him, but his contribution in this volume will help us to revive his memory.

Stefania Mazzoni

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Peter Pfälzner - Tübingen

In this article, it will be attempted to elaborate on a differentiation between the dead

and the ancestors from a theoretical point of view, and, upon this basis, with regard to royal
contexts of the 2nd millennium BC in ancient Syria. The main questions to be discussed in
this respect are the following: when does a dead person become an ancestor? And how is
this reflected in funerary rituals and grave contexts? And finally, can we detect the differ-
ence archaeologically?

The relationship between the living and the dead

As a starting point for our discussion, we have to keep two things in mind: that the
perception of the dead is an idea of the living, and also that the treatment of the dead is
an activity of the living. Thus, the living and the dead are inextricably linked. Therefore,
it needs to be asked in which way the living relatives of a dead person participate in the
latter’s post-mortal existence. In particular, it needs to be studied what the living’s role in
perceiving the status of a dead person and his transformation into an ancestor is.
In this line of thought, it must be kept in mind that what happens to a dead person is
conceptualized, perceived and experienced by the living members of their social group.
The connected behaviour and attitudes emerge out of the desire to cope with death. The
primary social intention of these cultural concepts is to re-organize social life after the
death of a person.1 The extent of the necessary social re-organisation depends on the
social status of a dead person and their family. The more important a person was, i.e.
the higher their social status was, the more is it necessary to re-organize social life after
their death.
In order to understand the general perception of the relationship between the living
and the dead it needs, at first, to be investigated how the path from life to death is concep-
tualized in a specific culture. This passage will here be called the “transformation of the
dead”.2 This cultural concept involves a complex and interwoven set of relations between
the dead, the living, and society. These kinds of relations and associated transformations
are performed as rituals which are distinctive and divergent in every society.
In most, if not all societies, these rituals include a sequence of different funeral activ-
ities, ceremonies, feasts, banquets, and acts of mourning. The effects of these complex
relationships can be visualized in a scheme (fig. 1). It demonstrates that we have to look at
two axes: a horizontal one which indicates the path of the dead person, and a vertical one

See: Van Gennep 1909; Bloch and Parry 1982; Huntington and Metcalf 1979, pp. 8-15.
Compare the similar concept of “transformational sequence” by Fitzsimmons (2009, p. 182).


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Peter Pfälzner

which represents the activities of the living members of a social group. The transformation
takes place where the two axes cross.
In fact, it is very difficult to understand these complex relationships on the basis of ar-
chaeological or philological sources alone with the data we have from specific historical
contexts, particularly those from the Ancient Near East. Therefore, anthropological theory
needs to be taken into consideration in order to conceptualize cultural behaviour and its
social foundation.

The theory of the “collective representation of death”

In this context, the theories of Robert Hertz3 are still of primary relevance and im-
portance as they offer as a valuable concept of the relationship between the dead and the
living.4 Up to now he can be regarded as the most influential theoretician for the concep-
tualisation of death. His major empirical source was the study of funerary practises in
South-East Asia, but he succeeded to demonstrate that there are some basic ideas involved
in funerary concepts throughout human societies despite the manifold local variations of
funerary rituals and their incontestable contingency.5 In applying Hertz’s theory it is not to
ignore or even to obliterate cultural differences between societies, but rather to highlight
common backgrounds between the different approaches of human communities to cope
with death.
In Hertz’s understanding societies develop a “collective representation of death”. Col-
lective representation is meant to represent a pattern of beliefs, ideas and behavioural rules
in relation to death which are not influenced by the psychology of the individual but are
defined by the social group. The collective representation operates symbolically and struc-
turally within the social group.
The basic underlying assumption of Hertz is that death does not occur at one specific
moment, but rather in two principal phases which both follow upon the biological death.
These are the “intermediate period” and the “final ceremony”. Each of these phases are
accompanied by funerary rituals. Hertz initially based this idea on a study of the Indone-
sian funerary cult, but found similar structures in other examples from Asia, the Americas
and Africa. He concluded that there must be some common underlying principles behind
theses widespread occurrences.
The “collective representation” is manifest, in each of the two stages, on three different
levels: they are related to the corpse of the dead, to the soul of the dead, and to the sur-
viving members of the social group. With regard to the “intermediate period” each of the
three levels comprise a set of different actions and rituals.
On the first level (of the first stage), that of the corpse, a provisional burial takes place
in which the body is buried in a place that functions as a temporary residence of the de-

Hertz 1907; 1960; 2007.
See: Davies 2000, p. 102; Venbrux 2007, pp. 6-7; Chénier 2009, pp. 39-30; and Adriano Favole (this
volume) for a discussion of the continued relevance of the theories of Robert Hertz.
Compare the paper by Favole, in this volume.


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Royal Corpses, Royal Ancestors and the Living

ceased person. This phase can be rather elongated, ranging from weeks, up to months or
even years. Over that time the decomposition of the corpse takes place. The body liquids
and soft tissue dissolve until only the bones are left behind. During this process, attention
has to be paid to controlling the body liquids, as they could contain harmful forces. For
this purpose, in many cultures, the provisional coffin is carefully sealed, or a hole is made
in it, or a vessel is installed below it, to collect the bodily fluids.
On the second level, that of the soul, this latter leaves the corpse and takes a temporary
sojourn. The soul might even wander about, and it might cause harm during this time.
Therefore, it needs to be diligently cared for by the surviving members of the group. The
intermediate period is long lasting because the soul needs time to leave the body, which
will only be achieved when the corpse is decayed.
On the third level, that of the survivors of the deceased, this group of persons engages in
mourning. During this time, they do not participate in the normal social life of the group.
Thus, they are partly disconnected from the social group.
In the second stage of the burial sequence, the final ceremony, the definitive transition
to death, takes place. This is marked by the definitive burial. The individual bones, rep-
resenting the first level, are transferred to a final and eternal residence. This can be in a
burial pit, a chamber, the trunk of a tree, or a cave (fig. 2). The definitive burial often has
a collective character as the bones are united with those of the elder representatives of the
social group. Symbolically, they join the bones of the ancestors. Hence, the dead person is
not isolated any more but becomes a member of a social group, again.
On the second level (of the second stage), the soul enters into the realm of the dead.
Thus, it joins the community of other souls and, hence, it resides together with the ances-
tors in the netherworld. In the same way as the bones reached their final place of residence
the soul now occupies a definitive place. In this situation it is no longer dangerous for the
living. Nevertheless, the living can still resume contact with the souls, for example to ask
for their advice. For this purpose, the soul has to take place in a stone, a statue, or another
On the third level of stage 2, the mourning period ends and the survivors are fully
re-integrated into the social group. This is the decisive step when the dead person becomes
an ancestor. He or she is integrated into the collective group of ancestors. As a conse-
quence, the invisible society of the ancestors is organized in a new way, and the living
group is also re-organized, in order to function without the dead person.
In conclusion, according to Hertz death is a continuous process over a long period of
time. It results in a re-organization of society, both the living society, which is labelled
the “visible society”, and the society of the netherworld, which Hertz calls the “invisible
society”. Death, in this concept, marks the passage from the visible to the invisible society
(fig. 3).6

The scheme presented in fig. 3 is partly congruent with that of Huntington and Metcalf 1979, p. 66,
fig. 2, but differs with regard to the social connectedness of rituals.


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The applicability of Hertz’s model in archaeology

The theory of Hertz has often been applied to burial studies in archaeology.7 On this
basis, the distinction between primary and secondary burial has been made.8 A number of
archaeological studies focus precisely on these two categories. However, there are two major
questions relating to the application of this concept in historical studies which need to be
addressed. The first concerns the conditions and extent of applicability of the model with
regard to alternative concepts. Is the model suitable to explain the totality of burial practices
in ancient societies, or are there alternative ways to cope with death? The second question
is whether the complete theoretical concept of Hertz is applied as explanatory model in-
cluding the three-level-aspect of the successive burial stages, or only a part of it. In fact,
it is noticeable that scholars tend to focus primarily on the principle distinction between
primary and secondary burials, while other aspects of the theoretical framework, especial-
ly the three-level-aspect, are neglected. Therefore, the applicability and usefulness of the
three-level-aspect of the transformational concept will be discussed and tested in an archae-
ological case study. For the latter, the Royal Hypogeum of Qaṭna offers an ideal set of data.
On the question of the general applicability of the concept, Hertz himself demonstrat-
ed that a similar set of practices and beliefs can be found in many different cultures in a
world-wide perspective.9 He convincingly argued that highly diverse forms of burial prac-
tices in different cultural settings are aspects of the same general idea of transformational
stages of the dead. However, this does not mean that the concept is universal. Just to quote
the most well-known example, we can refer to modern Western burials, based on Christian
mortuary practices, where the first burial is normally a definitive one, not followed up by a
secondary one.10 Still, the “collective representation of death” and aspects of a transforma-
tion of the dead are embedded in modern Western conceptions.11

The semantic problems of “secondary burials”

As a general tendency, archaeologists are used to referring to all kinds of disturbed

skeletons, disarticulated bones, or bone disposals as “secondary burials”.12 This, first of all,
expresses that it is not a regular primary burial. But can secondary burials be a synonym
for “irregular burials”?13 In fact, the reasons for irregularities in archaeological funerary

Macqueen 1978; Kuijt 1996; Larsson 2003, just to cite a few of them.
Interestingly, Hertz did not use the term „secondary burial“. One of the first scholars to apply this
term as part of a burial concept was A.L. Kroeber (1927, p. 310).
Hertz 1907, passim; compare Huntington and Metcalf 1979, pp. 15, 81-92.
That this is also in Christian Western societies, past and present, not a monolithic concept, but in fact
allows for many variations including “secondary burials”, has been demonstrated by Weiss-Krejci (2001;
See Favole (this volume) for a discussion of the “collective representations of death” in contempora-
ry European society.
Orschiedt 1997; 1999; Weiss-Krejci 2001; 2005, p. 155; Perschke 2013.
See: Perschke 2013, for the varieties of „irregular burials“.


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Royal Corpses, Royal Ancestors and the Living

contexts can be manifold. Actually, they might be due to multi-stage burial programmes,
or they could be a result of later disturbances of a burial site, either natural, zoogenic or an-
thropogenic, or post-funeral relocations, for example due to political considerations or other
specific, situational reasons.14 Post-depositional processes could have happened on multiple
levels.15 Other possible factors are grave-desecration or grave-robbery. In tomb-raiding the
dislocation and disarranging of bones are principally unintentional consequences of hu-
man interference. Moreover, multiple burials where skeletons are deposited in close asso-
ciation, overlapping each other or mixed up, could theoretically be interpreted as collective
burial places for a specific social group, where skeletons were successively added to those
of their ancestors. On the other hand, however, they can alternatively be understood as a
consequence of a mass burial at a battlefield, a deposition of massacred unburied bodies, a
mass burial during an epidemic or due to starvation, or even an instance of cannibalism, if
not another ritual activity.16 This list of diverse explanations for irregular burials could be
extended in any direction.
The reason for the equivocality of the term “secondary burial” lies in the difficulties
for archaeologists to distinguish between the different possible processes that led to a
specific archaeological deposit. The only way to grasp the reasons for a specific deposi-
tional situation of a grave is to investigate and understand the formation processes behind
the archaeological deposit. In order to avoid confusion and misinterpretation, Kümmel
very convincingly proposed to designate all aspects of irregularities and disturbances in a
grave context, as far as they are intentional and anthropogenic, as “grave manipulations”.17
Among these, “grave manipulations as part of funerary rituals” are just one aspect of a
wide variety of processes.18
“Secondary burial”, on the other hand, should be restricted to designate a cultural prac-
tice which is an intentional part of the funerary rituals of a society and which aims at the
“transformation of the dead”.19 Only if such a perception of the transformation of the dead
can be assumed with some plausibility, should one speak of secondary burial. As Debra
Gold phrases it, following Metcalf and Huntington (1991), “secondary burial is the socially
meaningful and prescribed relocation of part or all of a deceased individual from a tem-
porary repository”.20
This can be exemplified by the royal burials of the Babenberg and Habsburg dynasties.
Out of 868 members of the royal families, who died between 934 and 1993 AD, a minimum

Weiss-Krejci 2001, pp. 770-778; 2005, pp. 156-170.
Pfälzner 2011c, pp. 46-48.
Sołtysiak 2010, pp. 75-85, Table 44.
Kümmel 2008, pp. 480-483; 2009, pp. 121-129, figs 3.8, 3.12, 3.13.
Kümmel 2008, p. 481; another terminological precision for what is commonly understood as a “se-
condary burial” has been suggested by Kümmel (2009, 128, fig. 3.13) as: “legitimate, positive, timely in-
tra-ethnic grave manipulation”, or Type Ia1 (being one of 24 different types of possible grave manipula-
A similar definition has been proposed by Ian Kuijt (1996, 316): “I define secondary mortuary
practice as a social act focused on the regular and socially sanctioned removal of objects, pieces, or all or
part of a deceased individual from some place of temporary storage to a permanent resting place.”
Gold 2000, p. 196.


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Peter Pfälzner

of 351 corpses show traces of an “irregular burial”, such as relocation, temporary storage,
and disturbance. All these would archaeologically be identified as “secondary burials”, but
there is no indication that the recorded modifications of the skeletons were directly related
to a concept of the transformation of the dead on their way from this world to the nether-
world.21 Furthermore, Weiss-Krejci concludes for royal burials of the Classic Maya period,
which show manifold archaeological evidence of reburials and other modifications, that
the interpretation of these practices as an attribute of ancestor worship, as has been argued
by Maya specialists,22 might be a too narrow explanation. Instead, it should be regarded
as a consequence of “a wider range of both circumstantial and intentional, ritualistic and
non-ritualistic behaviour”.23 In conclusion, it needs to be pointed out that royal burials in
general are characterized, on the one hand, by a tendency for a stronger embedment in rit-
ualistic behaviour often tied to a dynastic cult or ancestor worship as opposed to burials of
persons of lower rank, but, on the other hand, by a much wider range of possibilities for an
irregular treatment of the bones due to particular decisions made on political or practical
concerns in a specific historical scenario.

The coexistence of divergent burial practices

Principally, burial practices are a direct function of the concepts and beliefs which exist
in a given society about death and the afterlife. However, it needs to be emphasized that
there is no need to assume that only one model of burial customs and of underlying beliefs
can exist at one time in one society. Instead, differing concepts can coexist within one
cultural context, and this not only in the case of multi-ethnic societies.
To illustrate this assumption, an example from Middle to Late Bronze Age Syria will be
discussed. The case of Qaṭna demonstrates that two different sorts of burial practices, with
obviously different meaning, existed parallel to each other. One concept regards collective
burials in rock-cut grave chambers. As a number of different individuals are buried togeth-
er, the skeletons are often disarticulated, with piles of bones lying in the chamber. They
are regarded as evidence of secondary burials. Well-preserved examples are tombs VI and
VII at Qaṭna. Tomb VI, the Royal Hypogeum, documents this practice for the Late Bronze
Age but has a tradition from the Middle Bronze Age.24 Another arrangement of collective
burials is attested in Tomb VII, dating to the Middle Bronze Age II.25 Both tombs were
connected to the Royal Palace and served for royal burials. The same principle, however,
was already present at Qaṭna before the Royal Palace was built, in the Middle Bronze I
period, as is indicated by Tomb I.26 In all these cases, the bones were manipulated after the

Weiss-Krejci 2001, p. 778.
Mcanany 2014.
Weiss-Krejci 2001, p. 779
Pfälzner 2011a, pp. 59-66.
Pfälzner 2014; Pfälzner and Dohmann-Pfälzner 2011a.
Du Mesnil du Buisson 1926, pp. 29-34; 1927, pp. 39-45; Dohmann-Pfälzner and Pfälzner 2011a, pp.


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Royal Corpses, Royal Ancestors and the Living

primary burial by different activities which resulted in secondary burials.

The second type of burial attested at Qaṭna at the same time is the individual tomb. It
often consists of a simple earth pit.27 Here, the skeletons are in perfect anatomical order.
Thus, they have remained in their original burial position without later modification. What
we can conclude is that no secondary burial rites took place in these tombs. These exam-
ples from Qaṭna also date to the Middle Bronze I and II periods,28 thus they are principally
contemporary with the collective burial concept. This is particularly clear for Tomb I lo-
cated under the western part of the Royal Palace and the contemporary pit tombs located
below the eastern part of the palace. Consequently, the reason for this discrepancy is not a
chronological one, nor a geographical one. The collective tombs and the individual tombs
lie in close proximity, at only about 100 meters, sometimes less, from each other.
In consequence, the difference in these two burial practices needs to be interpreted as a
social one. The individual graves, also on the basis of their much poorer grave goods, can
be attributed to the non-elite population of Qaṭna,29 while the collective tombs were linked
to the elite, or even political leadership of the city. This clearly indicates that the different
social classes within one society are manifest in different burial practices. It reflects a dif-
ferent attitude towards the dead, and towards death, in the different segments of society.
The first concept, the collective burial practice, is based on the idea of a gradual transition
to death. This transition proceeds in several steps, accompanied by different rituals. They
can principally be distinguished in primary and secondary burial rituals.30 The corpse of
the dead is left to decay during this long process until, at the end, the bones are added to
the collective of the dead. This idea conforms to the theory of Hertz. It is one example of
the “collective representation of death”, not because the burial is collective but because the
underlying ideas and beliefs are collective.
The second, contemporary concept, i.e. the individual burial practice, can be under-
stood as an instant transition to death. Here, the corpse is immediately and definitely bur-
ied, shortly after the biological death. There are no later modifications of the skeleton, and
no continued burial rituals within the tomb. Of course, this does not exclude other rituals,
for example on top of or near to the tombs, which left no archaeological traces. But these,
if they existed, were not related to the burial itself and the corpse of the defunct. The bones
of the dead in these cases do not join the collective of the dead but rather remain individ-
This idea does not conform to the theory of Hertz that there are different stages of
the burial. Still, it is part of a “collective representation of death” as it reflects another,
co-existing aspect of the collective beliefs and ideas of the same society. This implies that
it was not an individual choice to decide for a burial mode, but the choice rather followed
social, and thus collective, ideas, beliefs or values.31 This kind of “collective representa-

Morandi Bonacossi 2011, pp. 14-25.
Ibidem, pp. 16, 17, 20, 23, 25.
Ibidem, pp. 25, 33, 34.
Pfälzner 2012.
This understanding follows the definition of „collective representation” in the Durkheim school of
sociology (Marshall 1998; Davies 2000, p. 97).


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tion” included the knowledge and collective understanding of what was seen as appropriate
for royal and elite contexts and what was regarded as convenient for less-elevated groups
of the society. In fact, this choice theoretically could have been disputed in one way or
another by different segments of the society, but this still can be understood as part of
the constant discourse about collective representations within a society. In conclusion, the
individual burials can be attributed to a concept according to which these dead remain
individualized and pass through an instant transformation of the dead. In other words, the
collective representation of individuality is embedded in this concept.
One might wonder whether the second concept, the instant transformation of the dead,
reflects a fundamentally different understanding of the way the soul takes in order to reach
the netherworld. Probably, the idea of the soul leaving the body of a dead person and taking
residence in the realm of the dead exists in both practices.32 The only difference might be
that with the “instant transformation”, this process does not take a long course and is not
accompanied by a long series of rituals. Additionally, it does not seem to be directly related
to the corpse of a dead person. This difference in the amount and extent of accompanying
ritual can easily be related to the different social status with its associated expectations and
to the different economic possibilities of the living relatives of a dead person.
Consequently, we need to point out that Hertz’s theory of a “collective representation
of death” is a universal model, but it includes the possibility that various concepts of the
transformation of the dead co-exist within one society.

The corpse, the soul and the living at Qaṭna

In the following, the three-level concept of the transformation of the dead as designed
by Hertz will be applied to the Middle and Late Bronze Age collective royal burials at Qa-
ṭna in order to test its explanatory power. The intention is to see whether Hertz’s concept
as a whole can be brought into agreement with the archaeological evidence of collective
burials at Qaṭna. In the first step, it is necessary to archaeologically identify the objects and
protagonists which are active in the concept (see fig. 3).
The corpse of a dead person, which is the first level of Hertz’s three-level concept, is
in most, but unfortunately not in all cases, the most indicative part of the archaeological
record of a burial.33 The remains of a corpse can be present in a given archaeological
context in different stages of decomposition, ranging from complete, articulated skeletons
to disarticulated skeletons and single bones, including scatters and piles of bones. In the
Royal Hypogeum and in Tomb VII of Qaṭna, all these different stages of the decay of a
corpse are attested. The skeleton on the burial table in the western chamber of the Royal
Hypogeum is only partly preserved due to chemical weathering and physical damage, but

As Hertz (1907, p. 59, note 4) pointed out, the idea that the soul stays some time on earth before
departing to the netherworld can also be found in societies which practice a definitive burial immediately
after death.
For this reason, anthropological analysis is an elementary part of any attempt to reconstruct concepts
of death in archaeology.


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the remaining bones are lying in the correct anatomical order so that it could be inferred
that this corpse remained in the position of its primary burial (fig. 4).34 In Tomb VII there
are piles of bones, obviously packed together in boxes, which demonstrate that the disar-
ticulation of the skeleton had reached a final stage.
The soul of the dead, active on the second of three levels within each of the two stages
of the burial sequence, is, naturally, not part of the archaeological record. For this aspect,
we have to refer to texts. Unfortunately, no such reference is preserved in texts from the site
itself, so that one is forced to switch to other places to gain some insight into perceptions of
the soul, or the ghost of the dead, in 2nd millennium BC Syro-Mesopotamia. We know of
the eṭemmu mentioned in Mesopotamian texts,35 which are also to be found at Mari where
they receive kispum-offerings,36 and of the rāpi’ūma attested for Late Bronze Age Ugarit.37
Based on this evidence, we cannot conclude that exactly the same understanding of the
soul, as at Mari or Ugarit, also existed at Qaṭna, nor do we know which term was used here
to address it. But, what we can grasp from this broad, contemporary evidence is that some
notion and perception of a soul to be released from a corpse after death must have existed
at Qaṭna in the 2nd millennium BC as well. Definitely, the soul was an important element
of the cult of the dead in ancient Syria.38
The living, i.e. the surviving members of the social group of a dead, constitute the
third level of Hertz’s three-level concept. As in the case of the soul, we do not have direct
evidence in the archaeological record, but we do have ample indirect attestations of their
actions. Their activities can be observed throughout the Royal Hypogeum and to a lesser
extent also in Tomb VII. They placed grave goods, offered food at the entrance and within
the tomb, and transferred bones within the tomb and probably also between the tombs.
Additionally, their presence and participation is attested in smaller, more restricted actions,
such as illuminating the tomb interior with an oil lamp, just to mention one of a broad array
of examples. With the help of the thorough and systematic activity area analysis carried out
for the Royal Hypogeum,39 the living members of the social group surrounding the dead
could be brought back to light.

The transformation of the dead at Qaṭna: the intermediate period

On the basis of the archaeological record of the Royal Hypogeum and Tomb VII, a
succession of activities and rituals can be reconstructed. These can be correlated with the
general transformation process as described by Hertz.

Witzel 2011a, 378; 2011b; Dohmann-Pfälzner and Pfälzner 2011b.
Groneberg 1990, 250-253; Katz 2014, pp. 71, 73; already in 3rd millennium BC Mesopotamia the
spirit of the deceased was conceptualized as (Sumerian) gidim, also known at 3rd millennium BC Ebla in
Syria (Marchesi and Marchetti 2011, p. 182).
As mentioned in text ARM III 40 (see: Jacquet 2012, pp. 123, 129)
Lange 2012, pp. 162-167 (with further literature).
Van Der Toorn 1996; Del Olmo Lete 2008; Lange 2012.
Pfälzner 2015a.


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The primary burial is regarded to be a provisional one which characterizes the “inter-
mediate period” of the long burial process. In the Royal Hypogeum of Qaṭna this stage is
represented in only one of the minimum of 19-23 buried individuals.40 A partly preserved
skeleton in correct anatomical order was identified lying on a burial table of stone in the
western side chamber (Chamber 4) of the hypogeum. Remarkably, this is the only skeleton
in the whole Royal Hypogeum with its bones still in anatomical order. Thus, it was the only
skeleton in the situation of a primary burial at the time, when the tomb was suddenly and
forcefully closed by debris at the moment the palace was destroyed at around the middle
of the 14th century BC. The anthropological analysis showed that it was an elderly woman,
at an age of probably above 50 years.41
The skeleton was laid down in what was once a wooden box held together by bronze
brackets at the four corners. The bottom side of the box was carefully sealed by a plas-
tering of gypsum.42 The gypsum layer was applied to the case bottom from the inside of
the container, so that the viscous gypsum mass had penetrated into the voids between the
wooden planks of the box and, thus, carefully closed the gaps and sealed off the box.43 This
can be understood as a provision to avoid the un-controlled evacuation of bodily fluids.
A striking analogy has been mentioned by Hertz. He describes that the coffins used for
the provisional burial of a dead person are often carefully sealed, in order to hinder the
body’s liquids to leak from the coffin.44 This is – as Hertz remarks45 – not primarily done
in order to avoid bad smell. According to his observations, smell in many other cultures is
not necessarily perceived as disturbing as it is in our modern western societies. Instead, he
finds an explanation for the sealing of the coffins in the desire to prevent the body’s liquids
from causing harm as they are believed to emit evil powers.46 Probably, similar reasons
might have stood behind the attested sealing of the burial container in Qaṭna.
Another procedure attested at Qaṭna was probably especially designed for the pro-
visional burial: it is the heating of the corpse. As has been detected by anthropologist
Carsten Witzel, the bodies of the deceased have been exposed to a modest heat of 200-2500
centigrade, for a minimum of one hour.47 This might possibly have happened on a wooden
framework over hot charcoal. It did not result in the burning of the corpse, but rather in
desiccating it. As a result, the body’s liquids could have disappeared to a large extent. This
procedure can be seen as another method to avoid dangerous bodily fluids and prevent

For the minimum number of individuals in the tomb, see: Witzel 2011a, p. 379.
Witzel 2011b, pp. 530-532.

Dohmann-Pfälzner and Pfälzner 2011b, pp. 487-488, figs 5-7; Reifarth 2011, p. 517.
This reconstruction is based on recent micro-morphological investigations carried out by Nicole
Reifarth, which enable us to correct the previously mentioned idea (Dohmann-Pfälzner and Pfälzner
2011b, pp. 487, 496) that a gypsum layer was applied between the stone table and the wooden container in-
cluding the understanding that the gypsum would have penetrated from below into the voids of the wooden
planks of the case bottom; the new results will be published by N. Reifarth (in preparation).
Hertz 1907, p. 54.
Ibidem, p. 54.
Ibidem, pp. 54-57.
Witzel and Kreutz 2007, pp. 177-179; Witzel 2009, p. 210; 2011a, p. 369.


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them from creating harm during the long process of the provisional burial.48
Both procedures, the plastering of the burial container and the heating of the corpse,
suggest that the skeleton was deposited on this burial table for a long time period during
which it gradually disintegrated.
The second level of the “intermediate period” implies the temporary sojourn of the soul
(see fig. 3). Evidence for this idea is very difficult to obtain archaeologically, for self-evi-
dent reasons. There might, however, be a slight indication for the belief of where the soul
might reside during this time. Several vessels were found on the floor of Chamber 4 be-
low the burial table with the primary burial, or in a short distance to it.49 Directly below
the table were two stone vessels, three pottery bowls and one beaker; around the table on
the floor were another stone vessel, fragments of two more bowls, and three bottles. This
group of vessels could possibly once have contained food for the soul of the dead person
buried on the table. This would mean that the soul of the buried woman on the table was
conceived to be still rather closely related to her corpse. On a general comparative level,
this idea would be a typical aspect of provisional burials. In provisional burial situations
the soul tends to leave the corpse only gradually, in the same degree as the dissolution of
the body proceeds.50 During this elongated period, the soul tends to reside close to the
corpse.51 As Hertz points out,52 usually the soul will completely leave the corpse only when
the disintegration of the human body has come to an end.
Finally, on the third level of the “intermediate period”, the living, i.e. the descendants
of the deceased, need to be considered. It is possible to trace their activities on the basis of
the archaeological remains in the Royal Hypogeum. A series of activities can be observed
which allow for the reconstruction of a sequence of burial rituals (fig. 5).53 At first, the body
of the deceased was anointed. This can be concluded from the remains of a paste made of
oil, resin and earth pigments on the body of the dead woman, which were identified through
chemical analysis.54 The anointment must have taken place outside of the hypogeum, prob-
ably somewhere in the palace.55 Subsequently, the heating of the body was carried out.56
For practical reasons, this must have been done outside of the tomb, and most probably

The heating of the body of the deceased is widely attested in the archaeological record; examples
are the Royal Cemetery of Ur (Baadsgaard and Zettler 2014, pp. 112-113), the queen’s tombs at Nimrud
(Schultz and Kunter 1998, pp. 95, 119), or the Middle Age and Modern European emperors of the dynas-
ties of Babenberg and Habsburg where boiling the body in water, wine or vinegar is attested (Weiss-Krejci
2001, p. 771).
Dohmann-Pfälzner and Pfälzner 2011b, p. 492, figs 5, 18.
Hertz 1907, pp. 57-61.
Ibidem, pp. 57, 58.
Ibidem, pp. 59, 75-76.
Through ongoing investigations by the Qatna project, the reconstructed sequence of primary burial
events, as previously described by Pfälzner 2012, pp. 207-211, Table 1, could meanwhile be slightly modi-
fied. See here for the most recent reconstruction of the burial sequence.
Reifarth 2011, p. 514.
This can be concluded from the fact that anointment took place before heating (see below), and the
latter definitely being carried out when the corpse had not yet been brought to the tomb.
Based on micro-archaeological observations it is clear that the anointment took place before the
heating, see: Reifarth 2011, pp. 513-514, 519.


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also outside of closed palace rooms.57 Thereafter, or parallel to the two afore-mentioned
steps, the preparations of the burial started inside the hypogeum: the wooden container
was positioned on the burial table in chamber 4. This included the above-mentioned appli-
cation of a gypsum layer to seal off the container from the inside in order to prevent liquids
from escaping. Thereafter, the body of the dead person was brought to the grave chamber
in what was probably performed as a burial procession through the long corridor and the
ante-chamber of the hypogeum. Here, large amounts of different high-quality textiles were
first deposited in the burial container below the corpse.58 Thereupon, the adorned deceased
was laid out to rest on multiple layers of textiles. Finally, precious textiles were additionally
deposited on top of the body.59
Theoretically, other activities could have taken place as well, such as singing, crying,
etc., but these did not leave any archaeological traces. Nevertheless, those mentioned activ-
ities of the living which we were able to identify in the Royal Hypogeum can be regarded
as different aspects of what Hertz subsumes under the broad term “mourning”.60 For Hertz,
this includes: prescriptions, interdictions and taboos; the different aspects of the separation
and exclusion of the mourners from society; rules of clothing and headdress; in addition
to the more emotional, but nevertheless ritualized acts of mourning. This demonstrates
that only a small part of the mourning activities is documented in the archaeological case
study of Qaṭna, namely only those which were either located within the grave chambers or
indirectly reflected through materials deposited in the grave chambers.61
When carefully looking at the evidence of the Qaṭna Royal Hypogeum, we can rec-
ognize that the process of provisional burial, or the “intermediate period”, was not yet
terminated at this point. Manipulations of the corpses can be observed which must have
happened during the provisional burial period. They define a second step within the “in-
termediate period”. Several accumulations of individual bones were present in the main
and the western chambers of the hypogeum. They were not found in the proper anatomical
order of a skeleton but, instead, deposited in a disarticulated, confused manner. This shows
that the bones must have been taken from decomposed corpses. Accumulations of bones
of this kind were found within the two basalt sarcophagi in Chambers 1 and 4, and on four
wooden boards, interpreted as biers, which were positioned at several places on the floor

This is clear from the fact that there are not any traces of fire or larger accumulations of charcoal
within the hypogeum, which would be leftovers of the roasting activity. Further, the smoke originating from
this activity would have made the hypogeum completely inaccessible and would have totally blackened all
See: Reifarth 2011, pp. 500-521.
In earlier reports it had been assumed that a twig of a bush-like plant, probably myrtle, was laid on
top of the burial as a last activity (Dohmann-Pfälzner and Pfälzner 2011b, pp. 488-489, 497, figs 10, 24-
26; Pfälzner 2012, pp. 208, 211). However, in a very recent micro-morphological analysis of these plant
remains Nicole Reifarth and her colleagues came to the conclusion that the substance was coniferous wood,
probably from the side wall of the wooden burial container; to be published by N. Reifarth et al. (in prepa-
Hertz 1907, pp. 61-64.
On different aspects of mourning, as attested in the Mari texts, see: Jacquet 2012, pp. 125-128.


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of the main chamber.62 All these accumulations consisted of the bones of more than one
individual: on each of the wooden biers lay the scattered bones of a minimum of 1 to 3 in-
dividuals, in the sarcophagus of Chamber 4 were the bones of a minimum of 2 individuals
and in the sarcophagus of the main chamber were bones of a minimum of 3 individuals
(fig. 6).63
This anthropological evidence demonstrates that bones were taken from corpses after
their partial or complete decomposition had taken place. They were re-arranged and sec-
ondarily deposited, in an irregular pattern and with unclear intentions. Theoretically, they
even could have been carried to other places within the tomb, but more probably they were
more or less left in the same place where they had been originally buried.64 What is clear,
however, is that these bone accumulations cannot be understood as the result of a final cer-
emony in Hertz’s sense. They are still in the place of their original primary burial, and will
only later (see below) be transferred to a final resting place. Thus, we cannot speak of a sec-
ondary burial in its proper sense, which would mean that the bones were transferred from
a temporary to a final repository (see above).65 Rather, it is a pre-stage of the final burial.66
What we can conclude from these observations of two successive steps within the pro-
visional burial phase in the royal tombs of Qaṭna is that the provisional burial was a com-
plex, multi-stepped process which extended over a long time period. Step 1 is related to
the still intact corpse, while step 2 is connected to the dissolving corpse and its detached
bones.67 Consequently, the whole process can be understood as a gradual and long-lasting
transition from the provisional to the definitive burial (see fig. 8). Step 2 of this process is
a transitional step that accompanies and concludes the provisional burial and prepares the
definitive burial. The documented activities of step 2 in connection with the bones seem to
indicate that during this process the bones of the former isolated individuals started to be
mixed with the bones of other members of the social group. In other words, the process of
re-integration into a collective group starts.
We can, again, ask about the presence of the soul at this second stage of the provisional

Al-Maqdissi et al. 2003, pp. 195-196; Pfälzner 2011b, pp. 137-141, Beilage 1.
Witzel 2011a, pp. 370-379, fig. 1.
It is clear that this re-arrangement was not done to provide a place for new burials, in a manner as
it is often observable in collective burials (see, e.g.: Wissing 2012), simply because no such new primary
burials are present at the mentioned places in the Royal Hypogeum.
This is a correction of earlier statements by the author which claimed that the unordered bone-accu-
mulations are an aspect of “secondary burial” (e.g. Pfälzner 2012, pp. 211-213).
Admittedly, it is debatable whether step 2 is still part of the provisional burial. A contradictory ar-
gument could be that during this process the single bones were detached from the skeleton, after the corpse
had dissolved, which normally is a characteristic of the definitive burial. But, on the other hand, the bones
did not yet reach their final destination. Therefore, this step should by definition be still part of the provi-
sional burial.
It is interesting to note that on the wooden biers of the main chamber in the Royal Hypogeum, the
jewellery deposited together with the bones on the biers was still largely complete, for example the single
beads of necklaces still were lying in close proximity to each other (see Roßberger 2011, pp. 121-123, 133-
134, figs 1, 9, 22; 2015). Thus, the corpses do not seem to have been moved in any decisive manner. This
supports the idea that this kind of bone and grave goods arrangement was still part of the primary burial


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Peter Pfälzner

burial. It seems that the soul was still perceived to be in some sort of connection with the
bones. This is indicated by the ample supply of food which the bones receive during this
stage. It can most clearly be observed in the sarcophagus of the main chamber, inside of
which a large number of pottery bowls, filled with remains of organic material, probably
food, and several jugs were carefully deposited at the southern end of the stone coffin,
above the thick accumulation of bones (fig. 7). If one assumes that the food supply was
intended for the souls, and not for scattered bones, one can conclude the souls were still re-
siding in the grave chambers and were closely connected to the bones. This is, by the way,
another argument to support the opinion that step 2 belongs to the provisional burial phase.

Eating with the dead: the question of the ‘kispu’

When looking at the third level of the three-level concept of the intermediate period,
the activities of the living, the group of mourners can again be traced at this stage of
the process. There are hints on the performance of rituals in connection with step 2 of
the provisional burial. Most of them are observable in the main-chamber of the Royal
Hypogeum. The most obvious of these rituals is feasting. A huge quantity of vessels was
stored in the main chamber, closely packed on and below a bench on the west wall and in
the north-western corner of the chamber (fig. 9). Food supplies in large quantities could
be stored in these vessels. Probably, they were used during feasting rituals in the grave
chambers, and thus would have needed to be stored here only on a short-term basis. This
idea is supported by two miniature cuneiform tablets, on which solely the notice “1 Sila
of cocked milk” was written.68 They were found below the mentioned stone bench with
the storage vessels. They seem to have been labels indicating that one of the stored food
items was milk.
Some pieces of evidence in the main chamber of the Royal Hypogeum suggest that the
living participated in these feasts within the Royal Hypogeum itself. Admittedly, the pres-
ence of living persons at these banquets cannot be accounted for with absolute certainty.69
However, there are a number of arguments which strongly support this assumption. They
include the following:

Richter and Pfälzner 2012, pp. 168-169.
Some further supportive arguments, as well as critical comments, to this idea have recently been
added by Lange (2014, p. 254); Her argument (ibidem), however, that human bones deposited on the floor
in the corner between the stone benches would indicate that this area was used for interments and that,
therefore, the area could have been used for sitting and dining only “during the final use of the tomb” is not
compelling because these discarded humans bones could theoretically date back to a much older phase of
the 400-year occupational duration of the hypogeum, or they could have been swept from any other place
in the tomb chamber and only been discarded here. Also the argument that “most” of the animal bones in
this area would have been in their anatomical order which would contradict the idea that they are remains
of consumption (ibidem) is not conclusive because, according to the zoo-archaeological analysis (Vila
2011, pp. 386-387, tableau 5-6), only very few associations of animal bones (n = 3) were found in the sou-
th-western corner of the main chamber, while the majority of associations were found in other parts of the
chamber; instead, in the south-western corner single bones prevail.


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a) The benches in the south-west corner of the main chamber are empty and could possi-
bly and very suitably be used for sitting;
b) There is refuse of animal bones discarded below the benches which could stem from
meals consumed in the chambers;
c) There are piles of pottery bowls below and above the benches which could have been
used by the living for eating during ceremonies, and which seem to have been stored
away thereafter;
d) There is a series of equal-sized, large storage jars which were appropriate to procure
large quantities of food for ceremonies;
e) The two labels with the word “milk” written on them, which were associated with the
vessels, would not have been needed for the dead, but rather are an indication of the
participation of the living;70
f) There is a large amount of broken jar sealings, many of them carrying the seal impres-
sion with the name of Išḫi-Addu,71 obviously one of the official seals of the royal court,
which prove that food was issued from the royal warehouse and sent to the hypogeum
to be consumed during feasts.72

Taken together, these indications strongly support the idea that feasting actually took
place within the main chamber of the Royal Hypogeum at Qaṭna, at which a large group
of mourners could have participated. The feasting activities and the re-arrangement of the
bones, documented for step 2 of the burial rites (see above), took place in close proximity
to each other in the main chamber of the hypogeum. As far as we can see, they also took
place principally at the same time within the burial sequence, so that feasting can also be
regarded as belonging to step 2.
Thus, the main chamber seems to have been the focus for the living and the dead to
encounter and interact with each other. The feasting activities are the performance of the
bond between the living and the dead. This very much convenes with the theory of Hertz
that the living and the dead stay closely connected during the provisional burial phase, as
can be seen by the fact that the deceased are treated as if they would still be alive, they
are regularly supplied with food and the family keeps company with the dead and talks to
them.73 Therefore, it is understandable why the feasting activities in the Royal Hypogeum
of Qaṭna are mainly associated with step 2 of the provisional burial phase. It is the last
time, according to Hertz,74 that the living are in direct contact with the dead.

Milk is one of the food products offered in the kispum-rituals for the dead (Richter 2003, p. 183).
Pfälzner and Dohmann-Pfälzner 2011b, pp. 332-336, 343-350, figs 3, 12-13, 17-19.
Also at Mari, the food for the kispum-rituals seems to have been prepared and issued by the palace
as is indicated by the well-known text 12803 from Mari (Birot 1980, pp. 143, 146; Durand and Guichard
1997, p. 70; compare the discussion in Pfälzner 2015b).
Hertz 1907, p. 78.
Ibidem, p. 101.


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The transformation of the dead at Qaṭna: the final stages

The “intermediate period” comes to an end through what Hertz labelled as the “final
ceremony”.75 At this point a “definitive burial” takes place: the bones are collected and
added to the collective of the dead, or the ancestors. In the Royal Hypogeum of Qaṭna this
stage can be clearly identified. It is manifest in step 3 of the burial processes in the tomb
complex.76 At that time the bones were transferred to a final place of deposition which was
located in the eastern chamber of the hypogeum (Chamber 2). In this chamber there was
a large pile of human and animal bones nearly taking up the whole room.77 The bones ap-
peared to have been indiscriminately thrown on the floor. This chamber can be identified
as an ossuary, destined for the final deposition of the bones.
Also with regard to the definitive burial, the question arises as to whether there was
a care for the souls of the dead at this stage. This can be answered when looking at the
depositions of bones in the Qaṭna ossuary. Among other vessels, there are several pottery
bowls on top of the pile of bones. These could possibly have been placed there to present
offerings to the bones. This hints at a perceived presence of the souls near to the bones
and thus indicates a care for the souls. Albeit perhaps only temporarily, the souls may have
resided in this side chamber of the hypogeum. This suggests that the journey of the souls
to the netherworld was, in fact, thought to be a long-term and gradual process.78
These reflections lead us to a more fundamental aspect of the definitive burial: for
Hertz, the most decisive consequence of the definitive burial is the fact that the soul joins
the collective group of ancestors. It is actually the moment when a dead person becomes
an ancestor. During this process the erratic soul of the dead is being transformed to an
ancestor spirit. This notion is embedded in the second level of Hertz’s three-level concept
of the final ceremony (see fig. 3).79
We have compelling evidence for this in the Qaṭna Royal Hypogeum. Ancestor venera-
tion is an important aspect of the royal funerary complex. It takes place, most articulately,
in the ante-chamber of the hypogeum, where two ancestor statues were positioned next to
the entrance to the main chamber.80 They are depicted as sitting royal figures, dressed in
the typical Syrian royal robe. In their hands they hold an offering bowl which demonstrates
that they are expecting to receive offerings. We can imagine that these statues were meant
to be places to which the ancestor spirits could come, and they could even reside in the
statues. In this context, the ancestor spirits could have been evoked and asked to come up,
so that the living could get in contact with them. In this understanding, the statues would

Ibidem, pp. 87, 88.
Step 3 has been designated as „tertiary burial” in an earlier publication by the present author
(Pfälzner 2012, pp. 213-215), a term which is here replaced by „step 3“ in order to avoid confusion with
regard to a distinction from the more general meaning of “secondary burial” (see above).
Al-Maqdissi et al. 2003, pp. 203, 209-210; Pfälzner 2012, pp. 213-215, figs 8-9.
Alternatively, one might consider the possibility that the souls came back only occasionally from the
netherworld to this place, to meet the living. For this purpose, they could have taken temporary residence
in the ossuary in proximity to the bones.
Hertz 1907, pp. 95-101.
Novák and Pfälzner 2003, pp. 145-146, 156-162; Pfälzner 2005; 2015b.


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be a place for the living and the ancestors to encounter and communicate with each other.
The actual veneration of the ancestors at the place of these two statues is documented by
the remains of food offerings in front of the statues. Pottery bowls were lying on the floor
in front of the statues, one of them being upside down and covering a large animal bone
which once must have been a sizeable piece of meat (fig. 10). These offerings remained on
the spot when the burial complex was filled with debris during the final destruction of the
palace. It is one of the very rare examples in archaeology of statues found in situ, in their
original position of use, with offering activities connected to them still observable.
There might have been more places for ancestor veneration in other parts of the Royal
Palace of Qaṭna, as well. Larger ancestor ceremonies probably took place in Hall A, the
ceremonial hall of the palace.81 An according function as a place for ancestor rituals has
been suggested for the similarly laid-out large Ceremonial Hall (Room 65) of the Palace of
Mari, where this assumption is additionally supported by textual evidence.82
Finally, when looking at the third level of Hertz’s three-level concept of the collective
presentation of death, we need to consider the living at this stage (see fig. 3). According to
Hertz’s concept, this phase is characterized by the re-organisation of the living society. The
mourners are being liberated from their constraints and occupy their new positions in the
social group. This is especially important for a new king who is legitimized as successor
of the dead king by carrying out the ancestor rituals for the deceased king. On this back-
ground it is understandable why in the case of Qaṭna the royal funerary complex was so
closely integrated into the central part of the royal palace and why it was permanently kept
accessible for regular visits and royal rituals.

The relocation of the dead at Qaṭna

Astonishingly, the archaeological contexts at Qaṭna indicate that yet another kind of
burial took place which needs to be seen as a successive step. It is step 4 of the activities
identified in the royal burial sequence of Qaṭna.83 However, this last burial is not a neces-
sary step in the transformation of the dead. They had already reached their final status with
step 3, as the transformation of the status of the deceased to an ancestor was completed and
the foundations had been laid for its external existence. Therefore, no ritual need existed
for another burial. Instead, what can be seen in the fourth step of the burial sequence is that
the bones were transferred to another place, Tomb VII.
Large quantities of bones were stored in Tomb VII, which was also situated below the
royal palace and accessible from it, about 90 m further west, below the palace’s north-west
wing. Masses of bones were deposited here, packed into wooden boxes, with the bones of

Pfälzner 2005; 2015b.
Durand 1987, pp. 107-109.
In previous papers, this fourth step had been designated as „quaternary burial“ by the present author
(Pfälzner 2012, pp. 215-216; 2014, p. 147), a term which is abandoned here in favour of the designations
“step 4” and “relocation phase” in order to avoid confusion with regard to the broad meaning of the term
“secondary burial” (see above).


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a number of individuals in each of the 16 boxes. This, clearly, is not the result of a regular
burial ritual in line with the provisional and definitive burial concepts. Rather, it is the
result of a later relocation of the bones. The most probable reason for this relocation is that
the main burial chamber was filled with too many earlier burials and needed to be emptied
to make space for new burials, or because a new local dynasty came to power. The most
probable place of origin of the relocated bones was the Royal Hypogeum as it was the only
other burial place below the royal palace, as far as we know, which was in use during the
occupation period of the palace.
This relocation took place after the definitive, secondary burial, at some point during an
advanced stage of the existence of the deceased in the collective of the ancestors. Thus, it
can be regarded as a modified secondary burial. Its intention was to guaranty the further
existence of the bones and the associated ancestors and to provide a place of continued
residence, veneration and communication for them, in spite of the space problems in the
Royal Hypogeum. That they were still honoured and venerated at this new place becomes
evident through the pottery vessels, probably used for offerings, deposited above them and
through the fact that at least some of the precious grave goods were transferred together
with the bones.
An interesting analogy to this practice can be seen in the relocation of the royal corpses
of the Babenberg and Habsburg dynasties in Europe. Here, two different modes can be dis-
tinguished: internal and external relocations.84 The first refers to relocations within one and
the same building complex, while the latter involves a move to another building, town, or
even country for the remains of the deceased. The reasons can be manifold and can relate
to a political, architectural, religious, or practical level,85 but in general relocations are not
prescribed ritually in the funerary practice. Both types of relocations are to be regarded
as “post-funeral” and thus lack any required function and meaning for the transformation
process of the dead. This is why they do not play any role in the concept of Hertz.


The theory of Robert Hertz on the “collective representation of death” is in a highly

compelling way applicable to the case of the Royal Hypogeum of Qaṭna. As can be demon-
strated, the different aspects and elements of the theoretical concept can all be retrieved in
the archaeological record of Qaṭna. The gradual transformation of the deceased to the state
of an ancestor, as a member of the collective group of ancestors, can be traced in material
constellations, actions, and documented rituals. This explains the enormous importance of
the ancestor cult in Syrian kingdoms.86
Furthermore, both the general character and several specific elements of the Royal Hy-
pogeum can be better understood in the light of Hertz’s comprehensive concept (fig. 8). The

Weiss-Krejci 2001, p. 775.
Ibidem, pp. 775-778.

For the importance of the ancestor cult in Syria, see: Van der Toorn 1996; Jacquet 2012; Pfälzner
2005; 2015b.


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Royal Corpses, Royal Ancestors and the Living

four recorded steps of burial rituals in the Royal Hypogeum and in Tomb VII at Qaṭna can
be integrated into the two major sociological stages of burial processes, the provisional (or
primary) and the definitive (or secondary) burial. While steps 1 and 2 are both aspects of
the provisional burial, as a “primary” and a “modified primary burial”, step 3 represents
the definitive, or “secondary” burial. Step 4 is to be considered as a post-funeral relocation,
and results in a “modified secondary burial”
It is interesting to notice that only the smaller part of the burial complex, the eastern
side chamber of the hypogeum, served for the definitive burials. In contrast, the main
chamber and the western chamber were used for the provisional burials in two successive
steps. We can conclude that the largest amount of documented activities within the Royal
Hypogeum was connected to the provisional burial rituals.
Thus, the main purpose of the tomb complex was to be a temporary residence for the
dead members of the royal group on their way to the realm of the dead. It was a place
for the gradual transition from live to death. It offered the space necessary for the ac-
companying ceremonies of this long-lasting process of the “transformation of the dead”.
At the same time, it was the scene where a dead person became an ancestor, when the
definitive burial took place. For this reason, the Royal Hypogeum of Qaṭna makes an
important contribution to our understanding of the “collective representation of death”
in ancient Syria.


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How to cope with death:
The death as a process of transformation 
Royal Corpses, Royal Ancestors and the Living

The living members 
of the social group

A dead person  Transformation of the dead  Ancestor 

Re‐organization of 
the social group 

Fig. 1. Concept of the „transformation of the dead“.

Fig. 2. Bones collectively deposited in a cave, from a Dogon community in Mali (West-Africa)
(from: Beckwith and Fisher 1999, p. 275).


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Fig. 3. Concept of the “collective representation of death” according to Hertz.

Fig. 4. Stone bench for a primary burial (right) in chamber 4 of the Royal Hypogeum at Qatna.


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Royal Corpses, Royal Ancestors and the Living

Outside  of  the  hypogeum   Inside  the  hypogeum  

1    Anointment  of  the  corpse    
2    Heating  of  the  corpse   3    Installation  of  the  burial  container  and  sealing  
  4    Burial  procession  
  5  Depositing  of  textiles  
  6    Bedding  the  corpse  
  7    Second  depositing  of  textiles  
Fig. 5. Activities during the primary burial phase, as attested in the Royal Hypogeum of Qatna
(updated version).

QATNA and Hertz‘s theory of the „collective representation of death“

The death  The intermediate period  The final ceremony


STEP 1 3
1 1(-2)
1 = provisional burial
2 step 1
= provisional burial,
step 2

Fig. 6. Steps 1 and 2 of the provisional burial phase in the Royal Hypogeum of Qatna, with
minimum numbers of individuals attested anthropologically.


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Fig. 7. Pottery vessels in the sarcophagus of the main chamber in the Qatna Royal Hypogeum:
food for the souls of the deceased?


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Royal Corpses, Royal Ancestors and the Living

Context   Transformation  phases    

The  passage  of  the   The  intermediate  period   The  final  stages  
dead   („primary  burial“)   (“secondary  burial”)  

Burial  sequence   Provisional  burial   Definitive  burial   Relocation  

Step  1   Step  2   Step  3   Step  4  

Burial  steps  (Qatna)  

Modified     Modified    
Primary  burial   Secondary  burial  
primary  burial   secondary  burial  

Fig. 8. The transformation of the dead: concept and terminology.

Fig. 9. Storage vessels and bowls as remains of feasting in the main chamber of the Qatna Royal


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Fig. 10. Offering bowls deposited in front of the ancestor statues in the ante-chamber of the Royal
Hypogeum at Qatna.


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