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The buried soul: how humans invented death by Timothy Taylor
London: Fourth Estate. 2002. 353 pp, 27 illustrations. ISBN 1 85702 699 3 paperback. (£8.99)

The Buried Soul is a semi-personalised account of our long-term relationship with death and the dead. Starting with the recent case of a ritualised murder of a Nigerian boy whose torso was found on the Thames riverside, Taylor takes the reader through a literally soul-searching journey into the human construction of death from australopithecines to modern times. The first chapter examines case studies such as the Iceman, British Neolithic long mounds and Neanderthal burials to launch one of the book’s key themes; that the disembodied souls of the newly dead are dangerous and need to be separated from the living through funerary rituals. Chapter 2 is a brief examination of how contemporary attitudes to death have led us away from concepts of the soul. The next chapter is a provocative rewriting of early hominin and Palaeolithic disposal of the dead in terms of widespread cannibalism as an initially unreflective and purely pragmatic nutritional strategy. Taylor does not see all ancestral humans as eating their dead - the evidence will not support it - but he sees the diversity of disposal methods as a widening of choices which culminated in taboos on cannibalism principally after the food-producing revolution.

Ibn Fadlan’s famous account of a Rus funeral on the Volga details the gang rape and murder of a slave-girl whose body is cremated with the deceased and his trappings. This episode of sexual violence is the subject of two chapters (Chapters 4 and 7) in which Taylor argues that the girl’s death was not a human sacrifice but a ritual killing in which, unbeknown to Ibn Fadlan, the Rus were actually enacting an Odinic ceremony whose purpose was to annihilate her soul as an act of scapegoating. In the intermediate chapters, Taylor examines the social and psychological aspects of bodily preservation, on the one hand of exhalted rulers from Scythian kings to Soviet leaders and on the other of presumed transgressors of society’s rules in the form of the northern European bog bodies. His proposal, that these violent deaths prior to bodily preservation in peat trapped their souls in limbo for eternity, thus serves to prepare the reader for understanding how the manipulation of the soul in past societies may have been paramount over any concerns for the mortal remains.

In the last chapters, Taylor returns first to the Palaeolithic to explain how the appearance of placed burials served as a theatre of transgression to encourage social cohesion among the living. This leads to a discussion of vampirism and the transgressions involved in deliberately desecrating the dead of one’s enemies. The next chapter reviews the reburial issue, handing out harsh words about Westerners’ ‘patronising projected jealousy... of native spirituality’ and indigenous people’s blinkered perceptions and opportunistic inventing of tradition.

Academic readers will love or hate this book (or both). It is written for a non-specialist audience but does not quite have the draw of Taylor’s The Prehistory of Sex (see review in PPS 64 [1998], 355-6), presumably in part because sex sells whilst death is still an embarrassment. Tighter editing might also have made it more easily digestible. Overkill on the sacrificed Rus slave-girl and bombardment with ethnographic analogies made the text heavy going in places. It is not designed to be a textbook and will be difficult for students to dip back into or interrogate. There are a number of instances where the evidence is stretched rather further than it might be, and Palaeolithic specialists in particular will have much to get their teeth into. Yet it is startlingly original in its development of an archaeology of the soul. I can think of no other recent work that tackles such a difficult subject; with this new book Taylor pushes forward beyond archaeologies of emotion, for example, into deeper - and more difficult - water. Its conclusion that the human species has emerged from its cannibalistic ancestry into an era of ‘visceral insulation’, protecting ourselves increasingly from the ‘yuck factor’ of our bodily decay, is well worth further discussion and debate. The case studies are not always convincing but the ideas are powerful and refreshing. This is an important book that will get archaeologists talking and arguing for years to come.

Mike Parker Pearson
Sheffield University

Review Submitted: August 2004

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

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