Some Remarks on the Orientation of the Dead: Examples from Two East Lithuanian Barrow cemeteries/Moningaid Markusi Matuseorientatsiooni Kohta: Naited Kahelt Ida-Leedu Kaabaskalmistult

Article excerpt


Burial sites, e.g. flat and barrow cemeteries, tombs, cairns, etc., are not merely disposal areas for dead bodies but also function as an integral part of the cultural and sacral landscapes. The location of a cemetery in a landscape is unlikely ipso facto to be accidental, nor is the arrangement of the dead in any specific area within the cemetery. By being placed into a milieu intended for its eternal rest, the human body enters a system encompassing both physical and metaphysical elements: human remains, landscape, burial constructions, views of the afterlife, beliefs and rituals, symbolic meanings, memory, etc. (see e.g. Huntington & Metcalf 1979; Bloch & Parry 1982; Parkin 1992; Silverman & Small 2002; Bendann 2003 [1930]; Parker Pearson 2003; Tilley 2004, 194 ff.; Williams 2006;0 Fahlander & Oestigaard 2008).

Body orientation is one of the most universal of the many means for establishing a symbolic communication among the dead as well as between them and the environment. Like spatial distribution, it is commonly crucial for a cemetery's internal organization (referring, of course, to those burials that may be oriented, i.e. mainly inhumations). As the interred human body encompasses both location and direction, the body is a way to symbolically stress the deceased's link to the dead around it, to the landscape, and to the whole of the material and immaterial world. Many factors can influence burial orientation: the movement of celestial bodies, especially sunrise and sunset (e.g. Rose 1922, 132 ff.; Gruber 1971, 67 ff.; Wells & Green 1973; Hawkes 1976; 1982, 48; Raths 1978; Fichter & Volk 1980; Clausen et al. 2008, 222 ff.; Hoskin 2009; Szucs-Csillik et al. 2010, 326 ff. and a multitude of other studies; cf. Kendall 1982; Boddington 1990, 191 ff.), the presence of other objects such as other similar burial structures (e.g. Clausen et al. 2008, 219 ff.), ancient monuments (e.g. Evison 1987, 152 ff.; Williams 1998, 97 f.; Longley 2002, 314 f.), settlements, the real landscape or a mythological one (e.g. Parkin 1992, 20 ff.; Carr 1995, 130), religion, beliefs, memory (e.g. Rose 1922; Nicholson 1994; Carr 1995, 157 ff.; Bendann 2003 [1930], 211 ff.; Raven 2005), social status (e.g. Binford 1971, 21 f.), ethnicity, gender, age, etc., all of which can, of course, be interrelated, e.g. a cemetery spatially organized on the basis of an entire system of landmarks (e.g. Evison 1987, 152 ff.). Indeed, very few, if any, studies dealing with ancient cemeteries have found burial orientation to be random (see also Raths 1978, 2 f. for a general review).

Not only can studying grave orientation reveal certain aspects of burial customs, it can probably also contribute considerably to a better understanding of the social structures in past communities and the ideological forces which mediated between those structures and the burial. From this perspective, orientation models, which seem to have functioned at the local level (within a burial ground and its environs), are likely to be more significant than global models (e.g. those based on celestial bodies or fixed cardinal and ordinal directions). The potential of studies in this field, however, has still not been exhausted or even assessed, at least in the east Baltic region. This is why new hypotheses concerning the implications of burial orientation should be noted and carefully tested as a possible promising research programme.

Baltic pre-Christian (Iron Age) cemeteries do not seem to have a single universal rule governing body orientation, with different dimensions of the social and spiritual life appearing to have been stressed through it. Most tribes had their own predominant burial directions. In some areas, orientation reflected the gender roles, males and females being buried in opposite directions (e.g. Michelbertas 1986, 228; Tautavicius 1996, 285; Radins 1999, 25; Vaskeviciute 2004, 33), while in others, a firm link can be seen between orientation and the movement of celestial bodies (Jovaisa 2002). …