Learning from the Dead

Learning from the Dead

By Mike Parker Pearson

Chapter 1 of his book The Archaeology of Death and Burial (Texas A&M University Press, 1999)

Introduction: Somewhere along the banks of the River Volga in Russia there is a large earthen mound underneath which are the burnt remains of a cremation funeral conducted over a thousand years ago. Although this mound has never been identified, we know of its existence thanks to a startling account of how it came to be built. We might question the reliability of aspects of this ancient story but it illustrates something of the richness and extraordinariness of those lived experiences which normally survive for archaeologists only as decayed bones, scraps and soil. Out of these unpromising materials we attempt to recover lost lives from the distant past.

Between AD 921 and 922 Ibn Fadlan was secretary of an embassy from the Kalif of Baghdad to the people of the middle Volga. At the trading post of Bulgar he met people known as the Rus – Scandinavian merchants and military venturers living in Russia – and wrote a remarkable account of the funeral of one of their ‘outstanding men’. The mourners placed the corpse in a wooden chamber for ten days while they cut and sewed garments for him. The man’s wealth was divided into three: one part for his daughters and wives; one for garments to clothe the corpse; and the third for making nabid, an intoxicating drink, which the mourners consumed over the ten days in an orgy of drunkenness and sexual activity. His slave girls were asked who wished to die with him; one volunteered to be burned with him. ‘[I]n these ten days [she] drinks and indulges in pleasure; she decks her head and her person with all sorts of ornaments and fine dress and so arrayed gives herself to the men.’

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