A burial mound is an area of land that has been set aside to bury the remains of a human, an animal, or artifact. It is not to be confused with a grave, where the body lies beneath the surface of the ground. Instead, it rests above the surface, covered with soil, gravel, and sand, or other substances. There are many different shapes, sizes, and forms of burial mounds, depending on the culture that created them. The mounds may consist of the remains of a human or humans, fully intact or cremated, and sometimes with burial goods. Burial mounds can provide insight into the social, political, cultural, and demographic characteristics of a society. This explains the fascination with ancient burial sites. Archeologists and anthropologists attempt to learn more about past cultures by analyzing the characteristics of a burial mound.
Through analysis of burial mounds, archaeologists attempt to reconstruct the social, political, and religious life of a culture. They examine the way the body was found and how it is dressed and positioned. Artifacts can distinguish the time and environment of the person, as well as the details of burial rites or ceremonies. Artifacts that have been recovered include jewelry, pottery, clothing, or other objects of religious or spiritual importance, such as amulets, hair combs, and fetishes. Cultural scripts and encoded meanings may be written upon these items through the intricate designs and patterns used to decorate them.
Extracting Information Through Burial Mounds
Archeologists reconstruct burial mounds to acquire information about former cultures and civilizations on six levels. By examining burial sites, they investigate the ideas, beliefs, and meanings attributed to the afterlife. They give insight into the processes that the culture may have believed were necessary for the deceased to reach another world or realm after death. Rituals or ceremonies may have taken place during the burials as a means for the deceased to rest in peace or as reassurance that the deceased would not haunt or harm the living. They may have believed that specific rituals were required to aid in the deceased’s transition from the earthly world to the spirit world. Materials found in the burial provide clues that lead to these findings.
By investigating the processes performed by cultures during burials, archaeologists attempt to interpret changes and adaptations made through time. By examining the differences amongst burials over time, archaeologists are able to study the evolutionary processes of cultures, making note of cultures that flourished and spread in contrast to those that die. Migrations can be traced, as well as epidemics that may have affected the population. Changes include the addition or elimination of particular burial goods, different styles of dress, body position, multiple bodies, or the residue of rites practiced during the burial.
Burial mounds may illustrate the differences amongst age and sex of individuals. Although it is difficult to accurately make conclusions, hypotheses may be made when examining the deceased, burial goods, and location of the mounds. Cultures quite often are consistent in their burial methods. By examining the differences amongst males and females, babies, children, adults, and the elderly, archaeologists are able to speculate on the different social positions of members within the culture. This is possible only when examining the gender and age within the same culture. They must be able to differentiate between the two sexes and various ages based on the consistency of characteristics and burial practices. Individuals may be recognized as being of importance if they are buried in a certain position in contrast to others in the culture, if they are buried with more artifacts or artifacts of special significance, or if the burial mound is created in a larger or more complex manner. For example, burial customs of ancient agriculturalists from the Near East and Central Asian regions illustrate the differences among male and female roles within the community. Female burials include objects that represented their occupations, such as needles for those who knit and pestles and querns for those involved in food preparation. Within male burials, warriors were buried with weapons such as arrows and spearheads.
According to Masson, investigating burial mounds to determine the social stratification within a culture may be achieved by examining the quality and quantity of burial goods compared with that of the norm within each specific culture. The burials with more variety, larger quantities, and frequency of goods and artifacts are suggested to belong to individuals of higher social or economic status. Burials with minimal goods are suggested to be from individuals of lower social or economic status. Taking this into account, it must be stated that although there may be many objects found in the mound, the material that makes up these objects must be examined as well. An individual may be perceived as having high social or economic status even if the individual has few objects in the burial. An object made of precious metals or gems may be considered worth more than numerous objects made of materials commonly used among the whole population. Another consideration is the geographic location of the sites and the materials available. Ornaments, tools, weapons, and vessels can be produced only with materials that are accessible from the physical surroundings or available by trade.
Information on marriage and family is investigated through burial mounds. There is much speculation when it comes to collective burials. Some archaeologists believe that collective burials indicate kinship ties. If a male and female are buried in the same mound, the assumption is made that they are related by blood or marriage. Collective burials may also be formed by members of the community with similar characteristics or social backgrounds, although this is not a definitive conclusion.
The last level of analysis is the demography of a culture. By examining the characteristics within the population, archaeologists and anthropologists attempt to decipher the causes of death, epidemics, diseases, and injuries that may have occurred, the average life expectancy within the culture, and factors that may alter the normal life expectancy and health of individuals.
Origins of Burial Mounds
Burials have been established as early as 2700 BCE for the pyramids created by the Egyptians, with barrows made of stone chambers in England dating back to 2000 BCE. Between 1700 BCE and 1400 BCE, forms of mounds were built in central Siberia, and around 1000 BCE, mounds were formed in northern China during the Choo Dynasty. Historians such as Otis Rice suggest that in America, burial mounds were built to commemorate significant individuals within the community who emphasized special influence or power over other members, such as chiefs, priests, and shamans. He also suggests that the common individuals within a community were usually cremated and then placed into mounds, although not as impressive as those of the higher-status individuals.
There are many theories on the origin of the burial mound. Some people believe that they were created due to the necessity to protect the living. The hardpan theory relies on the belief that it was quite difficult to dig into the earth, possibly due the presence of shield, frozen earth, or other inadequate physical conditions. A hardpan is a layer of dense, compacted soil, often part clay, 1 to 3 feet below the surface. Greenman speculated that perhaps the primitive tools were insufficient in digging surfaces such as these. A third theory suggests that mounds were created to protect the corpse from destruction by animals and humans. There would have been enough matter on top of the body, and animals could not disrupt the body, but humans would have been able to identify the presence of something buried. Another theory suggests that the burial mound was first created by accident. It is possible that an individual came up with the idea after digging a large grave and having extra earth that was left over from the grave itself. That person may have duplicated this procedure in the future, creating a culture of burial mound use.
Indigenous mounds have been located on hilltops or in close proximity to other larger natural mounds. Burial mounds appear to have been constructed in smaller forms compared with those found later on. The height of a mound may have increased as a result of people walking by and placing additional material, such as stones or rocks on the mounds, for other reasons, perhaps of spiritual, superstition, or symbolic purpose. Other theories suggest that the living placed large amounts of burial material on top of the mound in case the deceased mysteriously reawakened from the dead.
Types of Burial Mounds
In reference to the mounds found on and around Manama Island, early burial mounds date back to between 2500 BC and 2300 BC. These are the oldest and smallest mounds found. They are commonly located on hilltops and are surrounded by a wall of large stones. Intermediate type mounds date between 2300 BCE and 2000 BCE and are larger in size, with flat surfaces. The sides of these mounds are lower and become narrower as the height increases. Stones used were both small and medium in size. Pottery and seals are found with the deceased. Late-type burials consist of individual mounds and collective mounds, dating between 2000 BC and 1400 BC. An individual mound consists of a single chamber where one person is buried. Collective burials consist of a main burial chamber and subsidiary mounds. Artifacts found in these chambers are ornaments, pottery, seals, amulets, and foodstuffs. Children were commonly found within the subsidiary mounds. Tylos-type burial mounds are large and expand over the site surface. They are built of small and medium stones, which form a hill. Some are a four-sided shape built to fit a single individual. Ornaments and others goods are commonly found among these mounds.
Natural mounds are defined as preexisting mounds found in the natural landscapes and geographical set-tings. These are considered natural places and monumental areas. Mullen suggests the reason for the formations of burials within natural mounds lies in the relationship between the association of a specific location and cultural heritage. These locations become significant in relation to preserving the history and setting of a culture. Natural mounds have also been associated with cremations and urns during prehistoric times.
A primary burial consists of one individual, usually cremated, and placed into a subsurface pit. Secondary burials consist of the construction of a mound on top of the primary burial, whereas secondary cremation burials take place over an extended period of time.
The Use of Burial Mounds Among Cultures
The largest amounts of burial mounds are found all over Manama Island, with highest concentrations within the northern and central parts of the island. With an estimated 100,000 mounds found, Bahrain’s mounds span over 20 square miles. These burial mounds were created over the course of several millennia. Four different types of mounds were found, which include Early, Intermediate, and Late Tylos burial mounds.
The Adena people, thought to be an archaic form of the Hopewell, are likely the first Native Americans to have constructed ceremonial burial mounds (Ohio region). Their burials consist of a rectangular sub-floor chamber, approximately 10 to 15 feet in length and almost that in width, and approximately 6 feet deep. The Adena marked a transition in the construction from graves to burial mounds. They seem to have used both techniques. Burials were found both in the subfloor tombs and above-floor mounds. The Grave Creek Mound, found in Moundsville, West Virginia, is the largest pointed-type burial mound in the United States. Archaeologists believe the mound was built between 250 BCE and 150 BCE. The mound and its two forts form the shape of a triangle. It is believed to have been created for a very important member in the community.
The Hopewell culture followed and was a continuation of the Adena culture, with some amplification. Archeologists have found a number of burial mounds, in which they attempt to piece together possible descriptions and characteristics of this society. The Hopewell burial mounds are found to be quite large in size, numerous, and extravagant. Greenman suggested that the Hopewell strongly believed in the preservation of the dead, in burial and afterlife. Reasons for this speculation include observations made of the time and effort it must have taken to build these burial mounds. They are well constructed, with a platform, surrounded by symmetrical earthen walls, reflecting the highest regard for “the sanctity of the grave.”
The Manitou Mounds, located in the Rainy River Country of northwest Ontario, Canada, have the largest quantity of burial mounds in all of Canada. The lands in which the mounds are located are believed to have been utilized for habitation for about 10,000 years and are the largest prehistoric structure in Canada. The Ojibway are currently the caretakers of this site, which dates back to the first Ice Age hunters. In 1970, the region was recognized as a significant prehistoric site. Within the span of 3 kilometers, it appears to have about 29 habitation sites, with one of the earliest ceremonial burial grounds. The burial mounds reveal the region was a central place where trade took place, and quite possibly people from all over the continent traded goods. Manitou Mounds are open to the public, and visitors are able to experience history as far back as 3000 BC. The burial mounds have shed light on the way in which the inhabitants have lived in the past, through their beadwork, weapon making, and tipi painting. Serpent mounds are also found in Ontario and Ohio, believed to have originated from the jungles of Central America or Mexico. Serpent mounds are formed by a collection of oval mounds, which create the image of a serpent.
Japanese burial mounds date back between the 3rd and 7th centuries, also known as the Kofun period. Individuals of high status, such as emperors, were frequently buried in tombs covered by large mounds forming shapes of keyholes called kofun. The Daisen Kofun, with a length around 1,640 feet, is located is the middle of Mozu Tumuli, a collection of 92 smaller and larger kofun covering an area of 16 square kilometers.
There are numerous types and forms of burial mounds found worldwide, describing the cultures that built them. They represent many facets within a culture’s social, political, and religious life. Archaeologists continue to uncover ancient burial mounds, unraveling and revealing human history.
- Alekshin, V. A. (1983). Burial customs as an archaeological source. Current Anthropology, 24(2), 137-149.
- Greenman, E. F. (1932). Origin and development of the burial mound. American Anthropologist, 34, 286-295.
- Kenyon, W. A. (1986). Mounds of sacred earth: Burial mounds of Ontario. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press.