Neolitni pogrebalni obredi. Intramuralni grobove ot Bulgarskite zemi v konteksta na Jugoiztochna Evropa i Anatolia (Neolithic Mortuary Practices. Intramural burials in Bulgaria in their southeast European and Anatolian context) by KRUM BUCHVAROV
Bard, Sofie. 2003. 303 pages, 110 text figures/illustrations, 13 maps, 24 tables, 5 photographs. ISBN 954-585-453-7. (€5)

For anyone tempted to study Balkan prehistory, its fascinating and diverse material culture poses the difficult task of integrating and explaining the abundance of the available archaeological evidence. Neolithic burial practices, as an indicative part of past social relations, are no exception, presenting various patterns in the relationships between the living and the dead. It is a surprise, then, that, after more than a century of archaeological investigations in Bulgaria, there was no target-oriented study of the oldest mortuary practices known so far on the territory of present-day Bulgaria. The new book by Dr. Krum Buchvarov fills this research gap and provides important empirical information for the overall development of burial practices in the Balkans.

The core of the study area is the present-day Bulgarian territory to which the territories of Greece, Macedonia, former Yugoslavia, Hungary, Romania, western and central Turkey were subsequently compared. According to Bulgarian Neolithic chronology, the temporal range of the study covers 6300 cal BC to 4850 cal BC (Boyadziev 1995) – the ‘long’ 6th millennium BC.

The study does not present an original body of theory but rather synthesises Russian theoretical approaches (eg Alekshin, Olhovski) with some Western concepts in burial archaeology (eg Chapman, Veit). Buchvarov’s aims are “… to collect … and systemise … the grave complexes”, which after detailed analyses serve as a basis for the “reconstruction of burial rites”. The latter “… aims to build up a system for reconstruction applicable to the concrete archaeological monuments, and in considerations with their cultural specifics.” Buchvarov uses historical, ethnographic and linguistic evidence in order to create a classification of Neolithic mortuary practices in Bulgaria. Putting them in the broader spatial context, he hopes to identify the distribution, diachronic development and possible origin of the different groups of burial practices (p.13). The study methodology was built on structural, correlative and comparative analyses. The data set consists of all known published and unpublished evidence for Neolithic burials (excluding Hamangia monuments, since they present a specific cultural phenomenon of the use of extramural cemeteries).

The general presentation is good and, for the benefit of non-slavonic readers, there is a ten-page English summary. The book starts with a review of the short history of previous investigations, formally divided into three periods. The first chapter also includes a terminological clarification, which seeks to unit and unify Slavic and English words widely used in discussions of burial practices. The terms are divided into four groups. The first one concerns the grave feature for which the terms ‘grave’ and ‘grave complex’ were accepted. The second group that discusses the complex act and concept of burying is summarised by the term ‘mortuary practices’. Grave goods are the topic of the third terminological discussion, where Buchvarov accepts the term ‘grave inventory’ as the most appropriate. The last group of terminological arguments specifies the meaning of ‘inhumation’, ‘secondary burial’ and ‘cremation’.

The second chapter consists of a short description of each site within which Neolithic burials were found so far, as well as a summary of the mortuary evidence. A detailed catalogue of all 108 graves from 17 settlements completes the empirical part of the study.

The next chapter is the innovative contribution of Buchvarov’s book, which presents the results of the structural and correlative analyses. The former explores the data set in respect of the three main components of the grave complex – grave feature, skeletal remains and grave goods. Eight pairs of interrelation patterns were discussed: grave location within the site/territorial distribution; grave location within the site/chronological distribution; age/territorial distribution; age/chronological distribution; position (skeletal remains)/territorial distribution; position (skeletal remains)/chronological distribution; orientation (skeletal remains)/territorial distribution; four types of grave goods (artefacts, animal bones/shells, un-worked stones, red ochre)/chronological distribution. The first interrelation type showed a dominance of graves placed between dwellings in North East Bulgaria and was interpreted as a result of uneven investigations, while the second interrelation revealed a complex tendency of shifting grave location from settlement periphery and dwelling space to inter-dwelling space throughout the Neolithic. The commonest grave feature was the ordinary pit but there were three cases of burials in vessels and two in stone-lined pits. The pattern of dominance of young individuals (infants, children, teenagers) in Thrace and South East Bulgaria contrasted strongly with their complete absence in the Sofia Basin and the equal distribution of young and mature individuals in the remaining areas was seen as a bias in the context of the available data set. However, young individuals were the prevailing age group in both the Early and the Late Neolithic. A trend of decreasing numbers of graves from the Early to the Late Neolithic was also observed. Age differentiation was successful with 92% of the data set. The sex of only 33 individuals could be distinguished, among which there were 18 females and 15 males. In more than 70% of the cases with known body position, the deceased were crouched on one side (28 on left, 23 on right, 13 unknown). This type of body position, together with crouched on back (8) and on the stomach (2), was distributed over the whole study area. The other two types of body positions – sitting (2) and extended (2) – are distributed only in Thrace and South West Bulgaria. The last and very interesting is the group of disarticulated skeletal remains. It consists of the bones of at least 30 individuals from eight sites. Only six of them were accepted as intentional secondary burials of human body parts. Despite the reduced number of Neolithic graves, a tendency towards extended inhumation can be observed. All types of body orientation were relatively evenly distributed in the whole study area during the Early and Late Neolithic. The commonest type of grave goods is pottery, represented in nine cases, followed by five cases of ornament deposition. Flint and polished stone tools are found in four cases each, while there are single cases of the deposition of a bone tool and a fired clay pintadera. Bones from aurochs, cattle, goat/sheep, wild and domestic pig are each found only in one grave. In two other cases, single cattle bones were deposited. Shells are found in five graves, four of which belong to young individuals. There are three cases with un-worked stone deposition, which is also the number of graves with red ochre. The four types of grave goods are found as a single deposition, as well as different combination of all four. More often there are combinations of different groups of artefacts rather than a combination of artifacts on one hand, and un-worked stones, animal bones and red ochre on the other hand. There is a significant decrease of grave goods during the Late Neolithic, when artefact deposition was found in only five cases and animal bone deposition only in one case. The total percent of graves with grave goods during the Early Neolithic was 32%, while during the Late Neolithic only 14%. In 57% of the infant burials, there were grave goods, which is in contrast with the other groups - 33% adult males, 27% children, 21% adult females and 12.5% teenagers.

The correlative analysis consists of six types of interrelation: sex-age/grave location; sex-age/type of grave goods; body position/presence or absence of grave goods; body position/ sex-age; orientation of contracted/extended skeletons/sex-age; body position/orientation of contracted/extended skeletons. The results show a clear pattern of young individuals buried in the dwelling and inter-dwelling space, mature males buried on the periphery of the site and mature females buried in the inter-dwelling space. However, there were some regional particularities in this pattern. Most of the graves in the data set have no inventory and only the children’s group has all types of grave goods. The infants group lacks animal bones, while this is the only type represented in the teenagers’ group. Both groups of adult males and females have artifacts in their graves. In addition, there is animal bone deposition in the former group and un-worked stone deposition in the latter group. As a general trend, the percentage of graves with grave goods in the large groups of young individuals and adult individuals is one and the same – 29%. The prevailing number of graves without inventory correlates with the dominant position of contracted inhumation to form the largest group of graves without grave goods. Three other body positions, however, are equally present in both groups of graves with and without grave goods – contracted on back (4), sitting (1) and extended (1). The only burial with the body contracted on the stomach has no inventory, while, there is grave goods deposition in three cases of disarticulated bones. The majority of disarticulated bones belong to children and adult males, while babies and mature females are not represented at all. Disarticulated deposition is the dominant pattern in the children’s group and especially the adult males’ group. In children’s group contracted burials on the left side closely follow the dominant position.

The different geographical units show different patterns of change and stability in body position. The orientation varies among the different age-sex groups and the only clear tendency is the general direction from South to West in the children’s group and from North to West in the teenagers’ group. There is some correlation between the choice of North and South-West orientation and contracted burials lying on the left side and, again, between an Eastward orientation and contracted burials lying on the right side.

The reconstruction of the act of burying and its possible symbolic meaning is presented in Chapter 4. The major symbolic pattern proposed is a biographical movement:- Earth-Fertility-Birth-Death. Buchvarov cites numerous examples and different kinds of evidence within the study area to support such a hypothesis. The process of burying was divided into two major groups of actions – preliminary ritual acts, consisting of body preparation, preparation of grave goods, grave feature preparation; and concluding ritual acts – the actual laying-out of the body or bones. Both groups of actions are discussed for three major categories of skeletal remains which Buchvarov defines on the basis of the structural analysis – articulated skeletons, disarticulated skeletons (or/and single bones) and cremated skeletons. Positioning the body was the most important part of the preparation of the articulated skeleton and this is widely discussed with respect to the variety of body positions (see Chapter 3) and their respective symbolic interpretation. From the activities connected with the preparation of grave goods – the deposition of ornaments, food and drink and lithics - special attention was paid to the semantic link between the shells and the bone tools and their symbolic meaning, which was called ‘Charon’s obol’ in later periods. The preparation of the grave feature is discussed in the context of the debate concerning the social meaning of pits – for rubbish dumps or as places of deliberate deposition. Here, the author infers a semantic link between pits and the womb of mother Earth. The same meaning was claimed for burials in vessels. So far, there is no convincing evidence for intentional purification of the graves though fire. The completion of the ritual acts consists of the orientation of the body, the spreading of red ochre and the ritual breakage of objects. The only post-burial activity was the scattering of shells, most probably as a result of a feast.

The body preparation of disarticulated skeletal remains is discussed in the context of practices of excarnation and corpse dismemberment. Using comparative evidence from Çatalhöyük in Central Anatolia, Buchvarov argues that the most probable practice in Bulgarian Neolithic was excarnation, rather than decarnation or dismembering. There is no evidence for the creation of a grave feature for the disarticulated remains. The concluding ritual act is called “secondary burial”, since it concludes a two-stage process of post-mortem body treatment. Buried skulls, mandibles, long bones and a combination of them are put in a wider context, which leads Buchvarov to suggest that the secondary burials are based on some kind of rite of initiation. So far, there is only one registered case of cremation in the Bulgarian Neolithic, so relevant burial actions were discussed in general, summarising evidence and concepts for the practice of cremation.

Chapter 5 introduces a classification of the Neolithic mortuary practices, in which the leading component is the definition of classes of burial – formal inhumation, secondary inhumation and cremation. The next classification level is the group level - defining the number of the deceased. The group is divided to kinds, according to the grave location. The final classification level, or variant, concerns the position of the body.

Chapter 6 summarises the evidence for Neolithic burials in the extended study area consisting of a minimum of 1,096 graves from 75 settlements (the vast majority from Catalhöyük). In Chapter 7, they are classified according to the scheme given in Chapter 5. The main task of the final chapter is to explore the spatial and chronological distribution of the classified graves. It would be only to Buchvarov’s benefit if the observed temporal/territorial patterns of burial were discussed in a wider social context, and not only in consideration of their possible origin and development. Thus, for example, the meaning of body deposition on such strongly ancestral places as tells could be discussed in terms of both social identity and emerging social competition. Another possible direction of social interpretation is the shift in the location of the graves, which, when correlated to age/gender distributions, show a very clear pattern of increasing gender tension. Last but not least, the exhaustive collection of all known Neolithic graves in the study area could be integrated into a consistent model of social practices, which, despite some regional differences, shows similar patterns underlying the nature of social practices and social relations at the intra-regional level.

This study by a young Bulgarian archaeologist is an important breakthrough in both Neolithic studies and burial archaeology in Bulgaria. For the former, the book is a long-missing element in the social reconstruction of the mortuary domain. For the latter, it introduces a consistent alternative to the current high-profile yet largely speculative interpretations of burial evidence from later sites such as the Varna cemetery or later complexes such as the Pit Grave culture. The meticulous presentation of data and its admittedly cautious interpretation provides a new basis for an appreciation of Neolithic mortuary practices in Bulgaria – for which we must thank the author.

Bisserka Gaydarska

Review Submitted: March 2004

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

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