Death and Burial in the Ancient World

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Course DatesLengthMeeting TimesStatusFormatInstructor(s)CRN
June 28, 2021 - July 21, 20216/28 - 7/213 WeeksOnlineOpenOnlinePinar Durgun

Course Description

Death is universal. Whether it is burying an early human in a cave or a king deep down in a chamber surrounded by wonderful things, throughout history human interactions with the dead have been extremely diverse.

In order to understand what this diversity can tell us about life and death in ancient societies, we will survey major archaeological discoveries, burials from the ancient world including Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt, China, and Ancient Americas. Our goal is to understand the diversity of cultural and religious reactions to death and dying and to learn how mortuary archaeologists excavate, study, and interpret these burials, how they reconstruct past lives, and what kind of difficulties they have to face working on ancient human remains.

Since the beginnings of the discipline, death and burial have been a major research area in archaeology. However, the study of human remains to answer questions about past people and their social context is a relatively new approach. This course will examine new archaeological and scientific methods used in the study of ancient bodies and burials such as ancient DNA. We will look at major theories and approaches drawn mainly from bioarchaeology and socio-cultural anthropology that have shaped the study of death and burial. We will also discuss some of the contemporary controversial issues in mortuary archaeology including repatriation and display of ancient human remains.

This course will consist of a combination of some short video-lectures and discussions, reflections, readings, and project-based work. Each module will concentrate on one major issue in the archaeology of death and burial such as burial objects, mortuary traditions, and human remains and ethics, which will be illustrated with cross-cultural case studies. During the course, we will also look at museum objects and learn about how to “read” objects. Moreover, we will have virtual “field trips” to cemeteries, memorials, and museums to see how death is understood and memorialized today.

The learning goals of this course include but are not limited to:

  • Learn about the material evidence, scientific, and empirical methods that archaeologists use to interpret mortuary practices
  • Gain insight into the variety of mortuary practices in the ancient world and examine what these practices tell us about the ancient (and modern) societies
  • Think about issues, problems, difficulties, and advantages of studying human remains
  • To develop analytical and critical thinking and writing skills

Prerequisites: There are no prerequisites for this class. However, students should be aware that classes in this course will require looking at images of ancient human remains. Students who have concerns or questions should contact the instructor for further information.

Course Information

  • Course Code: CEAN0941

Program Information


Brown’s Pre-College Program in the liberal arts and sciences for students completing grades 9-12 by June 2021.

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