Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

Mortuary Behaviour on the Hay Plain: Do Cemeteries Exist?

Academic journal article Archaeology in Oceania

Mortuary Behaviour on the Hay Plain: Do Cemeteries Exist?

Article excerpt


Aboriginal burial practices on the Hay Plain are highly variable yet recurrent characteristics of density, exclusivity, boundedness and formalism of burials suggest specific preferences for, and maintenance of, locations for burials. However, these groupings of burials do not fit the criteria developed by Pardoe (1988) for cemeteries.

This is demonstrated in the analysis of burials at two locations: Jeraly (76 burials) and Toogimbie (114 burials) where scattered and grouped burials are found in the same area as a single site described as a cemetery. Comparison of these finds to other burials on the Hay Plain indicates this is a recurrent pattern.

It is argued that burials represent isolated single events (n=76) or multiple events (n=89), a small number (17) of which reflect deliberate maintenance of an area for burials. While cemeteries do exist on the Hay Plain they form a restricted category and making the term more inclusive would simply mask important differences between burial places, all of which form a patterned part of the entire burial repertoire on the Hay Plain.


Apparent variability in the archaeological record at one level often conceals patterning occurring at a different scale. This is the case with burials on the Hay Plain. A wide range of burial positions and orientations have been recorded at a gross regional level (Littleton 1998), yet at particular locales on the Hay Plain burials are highly patterned and regular. This patterning, however, does not follow a simple division between cemetery and non-cemetery burials.

One of the defining features of burial places on the Hay Plain is that some locations appear to be maintained for burials while others show no evidence of being deliberately set aside for burials even though more than one burial may occur at that place. This division between maintained and non-maintained locations is not a simple division between cemetery sites (in the sense of Pardoe 1988 and Goldstein 1981) and non-cemetery sites. The criteria used elsewhere on the Murray for cemetery sites per se (Pardoe 1988) fit few sites on the Hay Plain yet the evidence of preference for (and potentially maintenance of) specific locations is widespread.

The aim of this paper is to argue that the classification of cemetery/non-cemetery sites is difficult to apply in the Hay Plain region and masks more pervasive distinctions between maintained locales, including cemeteries as a restricted case, and non-maintained locales, as well as between locations of multiple and single events. This argument will be made in the context of burials at two locations on the Hay Plain: Jeraly and Toogimbie.

What is a cemetery?

At its broadest conception a cemetery is defined as a formal disposal area for the dead (Saxe 1970). Goldstein further clarified this definition; a cemetery is "a formal, bounded, disposal area used exclusively for the dead" (Goldstein 1981:61). These definitions are based upon a consideration of excavated sites. The implication of categorizing burial sites as "cemeteries" is that this may represent some territorial relationship between the dead and the specific location (Saxe 1970, Goldstein 1981), hence the classification is seen to represent a supposed site function.

In Australian conditions where the surface record potentially incorporates thousands of years of use and where burial records are most frequently of surface exposures, this broad definition requires some clarification. Based on a comparison of sites along the Murray and Lower Darling Rivers, Pardoe (1988) argued that the defining characteristics of cemeteries in these conditions were:

* the number of interments (a cemetery represented numerous repeated events, more than 20 on average);

* density (more than one burial per 100 square metres as a rough indicator);

* boundedness (a visible boundary to the disposal area); and

* exclusivity of use for burial. …

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