Alas, Short is the Joy of Life! Why Study Elamite Mortuary Practices?

in Profiling Death. Neo-Elamite Mortuary Practices, Afterlife Beliefs, and Entanglements with Ancestors

Alas, Short is the Joy of Life! Why Study Elamite Mortuary Practices?

“Alas, short is the joy of life!”. Written on a cuneiform tablet some 3,500 years ago and deposited in a tomb in the Elamite city of Susa in southwest Iran,1 this lament serves as an evocative reminder that death is one of the inevitable facts of life binding all human societies together across time and space. At the same time, it is each culture’s unique approach to death that is one of the most intriguing variables archaeologists may study. In recent years, beliefs about death and the afterlife and the corresponding treatment of the dead manifested in the archaeological record have been a source of increasing fascination for scholars of the ancient Near East, who have progressively unveiled a concern with the dead that permeated daily existence. This wave of academic interest in mortuary practices, however, has failed to sweep up in its swell the civilisation of Elam, the lesser-known eastern neighbour of Babylonia and Assyria that at times enjoyed significant power and influence in the region. The irony of this situation becomes palpable when one realises that a large proportion of Elamite archaeological material admired today through sterile glass museum cases had once been buried with the Elamite dead; deliberately selected, with all its embodied meaning, for the funerary ritual.

With settlements stretching from the mountainous region of Fars, down through the Zagros foothills into Khuzestan and out onto the Susiana plain, what we call “Elam”—a term in fact imposed by external authors—comprised numerous heterogeneous groups. An appreciation of the unique highland-lowland duality and the internal diversity of the “Elamite” civilisation is, however, very difficult to achieve because most of the sources available for its study derive from the lowland capital of Susa, which was geographically, historically and culturally linked with the urban centres of southern Mesopotamia [location in Pl. 1]. During the first half of the twentieth century the gargantuan artificial mound left behind by the inhabitants of this city was targeted for large-scale excavations by the mining engineers in charge of the Délégation scientifique française en Perse who had successfully negotiated a monopoly over the site. On an annual basis their finds were summarily documented for the French government, which sponsored the work, and a selection of the discoveries were presented to the public in the official delegation volumes, the Mémoires de la délégation en Perse (henceforth MDP), and various academic journals.

During this most prolific period of the discovery of Elam, the only very clear archaeological contexts that were recognised, and indeed the contexts that returned some of the most celebrated objects, were funerary ones. The estimated number of burials excavated at Susa, though rarely recorded on an individual basis, has been placed well into the thousands (Carter 2011: 45). Nevertheless, treatments of Elam in general pay little regard to the fact that much of the material culture known to us—ceramics, art, and even architecture—belongs to mortuary contexts. The persistent sidestepping of the subject of funerary practices, in no small part due to a lack of reliable data, means that, as Daniel T. Potts (2012: 48) has remarked, still very little is known of burial practices in Elam.

To redress this situation, the present work endeavours to exploit the existing sources as far as possible to begin to define Elamite mortuary practices and bring forth fascinating clues about social structure, individual identity, ritual practices, afterlife beliefs and more. Its chronological focus is the first half of the first millennium BCE, the so-called Neo-Elamite period (ca. 1000–520), which broadly spans the years from the fall of the powerful Middle Elamite Šutrukid dynasty to the rise of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. Long marginalised as an era of decline leading up to the Achaemenid ascent, the vitality and dynamism of these last centuries of Elam have been increasingly recognised in recent scholarship.2

Furthermore, this period offers a fascinating corpus of mortuary material to study. In addition to the sum of the published burials from Susa, augmented recently by the online publication of the archived annual reports, photographs and inventory lists of Roland de Mecquenem, who led the excavations at Susa during 1912–1939 (with a hiatus during World War I; see, several Neo-Elamite burials have been uncovered both by chance and during planned excavations at a handful of other Elamite sites. The evidence from these burials can be woven together with threads pulled in from contemporary non-funerary evidence, from funerary practices of earlier and later periods, and potentially even from those of the broader Syro-Mesopotamian world, to reveal a rich tapestry of funerary practices. While it is problematic to adduce anachronistic material as evidence because cultural change can occur at a rapid rate, a sufficient degree of cultural continuity can be demonstrated from the Middle-Elamite through to the Persian era to tentatively infer the survival of certain concepts and practices during the intervening years. Drawing on knowledge of Mesopotamian funerary practice is equally hazardous, but might be permitted in certain instances given that cultural and religious links with Elam are well attested, at least in its lowland zones.

To provide the necessary background for comprehending the mortuary remains examined in this book, Part 1 will familiarise the reader with the Neo-Elamite period and the sources for its study. Part 2 will then outline the corpus of burials belonging to this period and review the evidence for burial location, typology, orientation, corpse arrangement and assemblages. Depending on their state of preservation, these various elements provide a window into the occasion of the interment, materialise ritual practices and religious ideologies, and reveal the individual identities of the dead formulated by those who buried them. Part 3 will further probe these identities to ascertain, for example, the extent to which economic status defined a person’s treatment in death, how gender was constructed, and whether children were treated differently from adults. Part 4 will then consider Elamite conceptions of human death and afterlife as far as they can be obtained from written evidence, and then reintegrate the mortuary finds to produce a basic narrative of the funeral process. After a person’s death, the funeral provided a formal medium for their family (or other social group) to deal with their corpse, to express grief, to ceremonially transition them from the living world to that of the dead, and to reallocate any roles they had fulfilled. But this event by no means marked the end of the story. Texts and archaeological evidence unanimously reveal that routine activities gravitated around deceased family members, who remained integral to the household and continued to exercise social and economic agency. This phenomenon of the “social survival of the dead”, an apt phrase coined by Karel van der Toorn (2014: 81), is attested over the longue durée in Elam and more broadly across the Syro-Mesopotamian world. Drawing to its close, this work will contemplate the Neo-Elamite period as a critical epoch bridging the Middle Elamite “golden age” and the Persian Empire, highlighting manifestations of continuity in the mortuary record between the old (Elam) and the new (Persia).

In its overall approach, this work is at once an investigation of Elamite culture (society, religion, economy, politics) and Elamite material culture (architecture and artefacts) from the perspective of the funerary record. While it aims, above all, to bring forth new information to advance our understanding of Elam in its final centuries, it also provides specialists of other periods or subjects related to Elam, and indeed other parts of the Near East, with an accessible body of funerary evidence previously dispersed through numerous publications, including difficult-to-obtain excavation reports written in Persian, and preliminary reports and archived documents of the early French excavations at Susa. For the non-specialist reader, the work hopes to breathe a little more life back into those men, women and children who have remained obscured under the long shadow cast by the Persian Empire.

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