The Tenth Annual Kolb Senior Scholars Colloquium, "Voices of the Dead: A Global Perspective on the Archaeology of Death," took place on Friday, October 23, 2015, in the Widener Lecture Hall at the Penn Museum. The fall colloquium featured three returning fellows: Dr. Ellen Morris from Barnard College, Dr. Page Selinsky at Penn and Princeton, and Dr. Aubrey Baadsgaard Poffenberger from Gettysburg College. Our guest speaker this year was Dr. Pamela Geller of the University of Miami.
Ellen Morris began the colloquium with a look at the mortuary practices of the Egyptian First Dynasty in comparison with other examples of retainer sacrifice in her talk: "Retainer Sacrifice in Ancient Egypt and Elsewhere—Three Crucial Questions."
Ellen Morris examines retainer sacrifice
In Egypt’s First Dynasty (c. 3000–2890 B.C.E.), the funerary enclosures and tombs of the kings were surrounded with burials of sacrificed retainers. The numbers of individuals interred in such a fashion around a ruler’s monuments peaked at above 500 before gradually dwindling in numbers and ceasing altogether in the Second Dynasty. The uppermost echelon of the elite in the First Dynasty emulated the practice of their rulers, albeit in a less extravagant fashion. No Egyptian sources discuss the custom of retainer sacrifice, so scholars are left at something of a loss as to how the practice was viewed by potential victims, by those who lost loved ones, or by others who perhaps gathered to witness such ceremonies. By seeking out instances in other societies where at least some of the conversations concerning such sacrifices were recorded, however, it is perhaps possible to gain a greater insight into factors that may have motivated participation in such practices as well as those that incurred mounting opposition. This paper seeks to address three basic questions with regard to Egypt in light of evidence for retainer sacrifice in other cultural contexts. First, was retainer sacrifice symbolically related to the sacrifice of prisoners, as there is some evidence to suggest that the practices may have occasionally co-occurred? Second, how was the relationship between the retainer and the owner of the tomb envisioned (i.e., were the retainers conceived of as property that could be disposed of at will or was theirs a self-sacrifice, offered—ideally at least—out of love or loyalty). Third, why would the custom be abandoned in the Second Dynasty, if every single pharaoh of Egypt prior to that time had been accompanied to his death by others?
Djer Sacrificed Retainer Stelae
Ellen's talk placed the Egyptian evidence against the backdrop of other cultures that participated in retainer sacrifice and ritual slaughter of enemies and prisoners of war in order to understand the rise and the demise of this practice and its impact on participants and witnesses. Her questions and their possible answers demonstrated a similarity between retainer sacrifice and the sacrifice of prisoners of war at royal funerals, explored the relationship between subjects and masters and the power of either a willing or enforced sacrifice, and examined the trajectory of this type of burial and the reasons why it would ultimately die out.
The colloquium's second talk, "Death, Display, and Decadence: New Insights into Elite Funerary Ritual at Early Dynastic Ur," given by Aubrey, focused particular attention on the practice of ritual sacrifice for royalty at the Mesopotamian site of Ur.
Aubrey discusses the Great Death Pit
Of all the evidence for mortuary ritual in the ancient Near East, the mid-3rd millennium B.C.E. royal tombs of Ur, discovered and excavated by Sir Leonard Woolley in the 1920s and 1930s, stand as a particular enigma. Several facets of funerary ritual in what Woolley identified as graves belonging to "royalty," including lavish burial dress, and a rich array of grave goods and attendants buried with deceased kings and queens, seemed out of place when compared to the finds of other mortuary contexts from both contemporary and later periods in the region. The challenge in interpreting the evidence from Ur lies in connecting the unparalleled discoveries of the Royal Cemetery to this broader social context. This connection is becoming clearer in light of updated insights into the evidence from Ur’s Royal Cemetery, gained from a detailed reanalysis of both skeletal remains and mortuary accoutrements, with the aim of providing a more complete picture of royal funerary practice in early Mesopotamia. This new evidence shows that the royal funerary rituals evident in the Royal Cemetery of Ur were both creative and crucial, a social arena essential for creating and legitimizing a ruling class with new-found power to drive social and political developments both at Ur and within the 3rd millennium Mesopotamian social sphere.
Royal tomb at Ur
Aubrey's talk highlighted the performance aspect of the ritual slaughter at the Ur cemetery during the Early Dynastic period. Once again this ritual practice appeared and then disappeared to be replaced with other forms of burial rites within the same area. Aspects of royalty, ceremony, excess, and motivation were discussed by Aubrey in an attempt to understand the mechanics of the mass burials from the point of view of both the participants and the observers. Her analysis of the evidence for the dress, accoutrements, placement and method of death of the retainers and their relationship to the principal burial brought to life the ceremony and the visual display, feasting, and music that were an intrinsic part of the interment process.
Page's talk shifted the focus from 3rd millennium Mesopotamia to Hellenistic Turkey and the site of Gordion. In "Not a Proper Burial: Evidence of Celtic Ritual at Gordion, Turkey" she examined the unburied and ritually exposed bodies of Galatians living at the site.
Page Selinsky speaking about the Gordion material
Hellenistic period skeletons from the Lower Town Area of Gordion yield insight into what appears to be Celtic ritual at the site. The presence of Celts in Anatolia is primarily detailed in textual accounts of ancient historians. However, through a bioarchaeological approach integrating archaeological evidence with the analysis of mortuary practice and human skeletal remains, this presence is further supported. The Hellenistic skeletons show evidence of strange burial treatments as well as perimortem violence. This is in sharp contrast to the later Roman material from the same area. Also presented are some new data generated from isotopic analyses that begin to unfold the story of who was being sacrificed according to Celtic tradition.
Burial treatments at Gordion and Danebury
Page presented interesting and evocative evidence for the manipulation and exposure of corpses of Celtic men, women, and children in an area that would have been on view for the inhabitants of Gordion. She explored the nature of the Middle Hellenistic migration of Galatians to the environment of Phrygian Gordion and the context for the ritually violent and demeaning treatment of the bodies found there. Using parallels from Celtic sites in Europe and detailed bioarchaeological evidence, Page was able to piece together the ritual acts performed on the bodies and to stimulate a discussion about the reasons for their ritual slaughter and grisly arrangement.
Our final speaker, Pamela Geller, looked at the issue of the manipulation of human remains from the other side of the spectrum. Her lecture, "Bio-power, Biohistory, and the Voiceless Dead: The Samuel G. Morton Collection," delved into the intricacies of the purposely accumulated skulls of Penn Museum's Morton Collection.
Pamela Geller discusses the Morton collection
"Morton," mused Ashley Montagu, "had thousands of skulls but apparently no brains at all." He was responding to a query sent by J. Percy Moore, a professor of zoology at Penn. Montagu’s train of thought continues, "He was probably a very nice man, but I should say not an outstanding scientist, and so far as I am aware his influence upon anthropological thought in this country was neither good nor bad nor very noticeable." The letter, penned on 30 January 1946, indicates that almost a century after his 1851 death Morton had transitioned from beloved kin and medical colleague to historical footnote. Research on scientific racism would next transform him into anthropologists’ unhandsome intellectual ancestor. These shifting caricatures, I believe, have oversimplified the complexities of his biography and the lessons we may draw from his scientific work. As I discuss in this talk, Morton and the crania he amassed invite us to think further about the historic machinations of bio-power.
Skull from the Morton Collection
Coined by Michel Foucault in the 1970s, bio-power initially referred to the processes that transform humans’ biological attributes into politically strategic objects. Much subsequent theorizing about the concept has focused on the discursive and abstract. That is, the technical study and materiality of human remains have seldom been brought to the fore. Bringing textual and skeletal materials together, my study of the Morton Collection has been a biohistoric one. The approach yields evidence of bio-power’s key attributes—the formation of Western biomedicine, violent nation-building by European or Euro-American forces, and racialization processes. Thus, while Philadelphia may have been the locus for Morton’s professional and intellectual activities, his efforts resonated globally. To illustrate this point, I spotlight Morton’s relationships with the military and medical officers who supplied him with the crania of subjugated Others.
Using historical evidence, Pamela's talk illuminated the motivations and practices of the collectors of human remains for the purposes of study during the 1800s, when the United States government was expanding its borders and pushing the native population from the land. Her talk and the notion of "bio-power" informed each previous examination of the manipulation of live and dead "others" in the moment of death.
Egyptian Gallery courtesy of Margaret Spencer
After the colloquium the Kolb Society fellows and their guests attended the annual dinner in the Egyptian Gallery at the Penn Museum.