Grave goods

Grave goods, in archaeology and anthropology, are the items buried along with the body.

They are usually personal possessions, supplies to smooth the deceased's journey into the afterlife or offerings to the gods. Grave goods may be classed as a type of votive deposit. Most grave goods recovered by archaeologists consist of inorganic objects such as pottery and stone and metal tools but organic objects that have since decayed were also placed in ancient tombs.[1] Funerary art is a broad term but generally means artworks made specifically to decorate a burial place, such as miniature models of possessions including slaves or servants for "use" in the afterlife.

Where grave goods appear, grave robbery is a potential problem. Etruscans would scratch the word śuθina, Etruscan for "from a tomb", on grave goods buried with the dead to discourage their reuse by the living.[2] The tomb of pharaoh Tutankhamun is famous because it was one of the few Egyptian tombs that was not thoroughly looted in ancient times.

Grave goods can be regarded as a sacrifice intended for the benefit of the deceased in the afterlife. Closely related are customs of ancestor worship and offerings to the dead, in modern western culture related to All Souls' Day (Day of the Dead), in East Asia the "hell bank note" and related customs. Also closely related is the custom of retainer sacrifice, where servants or wives of a deceased chieftain are interred with the body. As the inclusion of expensive grave goods and of slaves or retainers became a sign of high status in the Bronze Age, the prohibitive cost led to the development of "fake" grave goods, where artwork meant to depict grave goods or retainers is produced for the burial and deposited in the grave in place of the actual sacrifice.

Tutanchamon (js) 3
The gilded throne of Pharaoh Tutankhamun is but one of the treasures found within his tomb.


Urnenbestattung HH-Marmstorf Grab 216 Modell
Model of the warrior's burial 'Hamburg-Marmstorf Grave No. 216', dating to circa 50 A.D., Hamburg-Marmstorf, Hamburg, Germany. At the upper edge are turf and the plough horizon. Below are the burial in a ceramic urn and beneath that the grave goods.

There are disputed claims of intentional burial of Neanderthals as old as 130,000 years. Similar claims have been made for early anatomically modern humans as old as 100,000 years. The earliest undisputed cases of burials are found in modern human sites of the Upper Palaeolithic.

Beads made of basalt deposited in graves in the Fertile Crescent date to the end of the Upper Paleolithic, beginning in about the 12th to 11th millennium BC.[3]

The distribution of grave goods are a potential indicator of the social stratification of a society. Thus, early Neolithic graves tend to show equal distribution of goods, suggesting a more or less classless society, while in Chalcolithic and Bronze Age burials, rich grave goods are concentrated in "chieftain" graves (barrows), indicating social stratification.[4] It is also possible that burial goods indicate a level of concern and consciousness in regard to an afterlife and related sense of spirituality.

Famous grave sites

Conical loaves of bread, Gebelein, 5th Dynasty c 2400 BC
Conical loaves of bread as grave goods exactly as laid out in the Great Tomb, North Necropolis, Gebelein, 5th Dynasty (Old Kingdom), 2435-2305 BC. Excavations by Ernesto Schiaparelli, 1911. Egyptian Museum, Turin, S. 14051-14055

The expression of social status in rich graves is taken to extremes in the royal graves of the Bronze Age. In the Theban Necropolis in Ancient Egypt, the pyramids and the royal graves in the Valley of the Kings are among the most elaborate burials in human history. This trend is continued into the Iron Age. An example of an extremely rich royal grave of the Iron Age is the Terracotta Army of Qin Shi Huang.

In the sphere of the Roman Empire, early Christian graves lack grave goods, and grave goods tend to disappear with the decline of Greco-Roman polytheism in the 5th and 6th centuries. Similarly, the presence of grave goods in the Early Middle Ages in Europe has often been taken as evidence of paganism, although during the period of conversion in Anglo-Saxon England and the Frankish Empire (7th century), the situation may be more complicated.[5] In the Christian Middle Ages, high-status graves are marked on the exterior, with tomb effigies or expensive tomb stones rather than by the presence of grave goods.

The practice of placing grave goods with the dead body has thus an uninterrupted history beginning in the Upper Paleolithic, if not the Middle Paleolithic, upheld until comparatively recent times, in many regions of the world ceasing only with Christianization.

Role in archaeology

Copper age grave group stone wristguard copper dagger bone belt fitting sittingbourne british museum
A Copper Age grave group including a stone wristguard, copper dagger and bone belt fitting found at Sittingbourne

The importance of grave goods, from the simple behavioural and technical to the metaphysical, in archaeology cannot be overestimated. Because of their almost ubiquitous presence throughout the world and throughout prehistory, in many cases the excavation of every-day items placed in burials is the main source of such artifacts in a given prehistoric culture. However, care must be taken to avoid naive interpretation of grave goods as an objective sample of artifacts in use in a culture. Because of their ritual context, grave goods may represent a special class of artifacts, in some instances produced especially for burial. Artwork produced for the burial itself is known as funerary art, while grave goods in the narrow sense are items produced for actual use that are placed in the grave, but in practice the two categories overlap.

Grave goods in Bronze Age and Iron Age cemeteries are a good indicator of relative social status; in a 2001 study on an Iron Age cemetery in Pontecagnano Faiano, Italy, a correlation was found between the quality of grave goods and Forensic indicators on the skeletons, showing that skeletons in wealthy tombs tended to show substantially less evidence of biological stress during adulthood, with fewer broken bones or signs of hard labor.[6]

See also


  1. ^ Ian Morris, Death-Ritual and Social Structure in Classical Antiquity (Cambridge, 1992; ISBN 0-521-37611-4)
  2. ^ Giuliano Bonfante and Larissa Bonfante The Etruscan Language: an Introduction (Univ. Manchester Press, 2002. ISBN 0-7190-5540-7); several examples collected
  3. ^ The Earliest Beads,
  4. ^ see e.g. William A. Haviland, Harald E. L. Prins, Dana Walrath, Bunny McBride, Anthropology: The Human Challenge, Cengage Learning, 2010 ISBN 978-0-495-81084-1, p. 268.
  5. ^ Helen Geake, The use of grave-goods in conversion-period England, c.600-c.850, British Archaeological Reports, 1997, ISBN 978-0-86054-917-8
  6. ^ Robb, John; Bigazzi, Renzo; Lazzarini, Luca; Scarsini, Caterina; Sonego, Fiorenza (2001). "Social status and biological status: A comparison of grave goods and skeletal indicators from Pontecagnano". American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 115 (3): 213–222. doi:10.1002/ajpa.1076.

External links

Ancient Greek funeral and burial practices

Ancient Greek funerary practices are attested widely in the literature, the archaeological record, and the art of ancient Greece. Finds associated with burials are an important source for ancient Greek culture, though Greek funerals are not as well documented as those of the ancient Romans.

Bed burial

A bed burial is a type of burial in which the deceased person is buried in the ground, lying upon a bed. It is a burial custom that is particularly associated with high status women during the early Anglo-Saxon period (7th century), although excavated examples of bed burials are comparatively rare.

Buhl Woman

Buhla is the name for a skeleton of a prehistoric (Paleo-Indian) woman found in a quarry near Buhl, Idaho, United States, in January 1989. The skeleton's age has been estimated by radiocarbon dating at 10,675 ± 95 BP, which confirms this as one of the oldest sets of human remains found in the Americas. The discovery was made by a quarry worker when he noticed what was found to be a thigh bone in the screen of a rock crusher. The nearly complete skeleton was subsequently unearthed nearby.

Burial in Anglo-Saxon England

Burial in Early Anglo-Saxon England refers to the grave and burial customs followed by the Anglo-Saxons between the mid 5th and 11th centuries CE in Early Mediaeval England. The variation of practice performed by the Anglo-Saxon peoples during this period, included the use of both cremation and inhumation. There is commonality in the burial places between the rich and poor - their resting places sit alongside one another in shared cemeteries. Both of these forms of burial were typically accompanied by grave goods, which included food, jewellery and weaponry. The actual burials themselves, whether of cremated or inhumed remains, were placed in a variety of sites, including in cemeteries, burial mounds or, more rarely, in ship burials.

Within the areas of Anglo-Saxon settlement, there was both regional and temporal variation while burial practices. The early Anglo-Saxons were followers of a pagan religion, which is reflected in their burials from this time, while they later converted to Christianity in the seventh and eighth centuries CE, which was again reflected in their burial practices, when cremation ceased to be practiced and inhumation became the sole form of burial, typically being concentrated in Christian cemeteries located adjacent to churches.

In the eighteenth century, antiquarians took an interest in these burials, and began excavating them, although more scientific excavation only began in the twentieth century with the development of archaeology. Prominent Anglo-Saxon burials that have since been discovered and excavated include the early cemetery of Spong Hill in Norfolk and the great sixth-seventh century ship burial of Sutton Hoo in Suffolk.

Chamber tomb

A chamber tomb is a tomb for burial used in many different cultures. In the case of individual burials, the chamber is thought to signify a higher status for the interree than a simple grave. Built from rock or sometimes wood, the chambers could also serve as places for storage of the dead from one family or social group and were often used over long periods for multiple burials.

Most chamber tombs were constructed from large stones or megaliths and covered by cairns, barrows or earth. Some chamber tombs are rock-cut monuments or wooden-chambered tombs covered with earth barrows. Grave goods are a common characteristic of chamber tomb burials.

In Neolithic and Bronze Age Europe, stone-built examples of these burials are known by the generic term of megalithic tombs. Chamber tombs are often distinguished by the layout of their chambers and entrances or the shape and material of the structure that covered them, either an earth barrow or stone cairn. A wide variety of local types has been identified, and some designs appear to have influenced others.

Dawenkou culture

The Dawenkou culture is a name given by archaeologists to a group of Neolithic communities who lived primarily in Shandong, but also appeared in Anhui, Henan and Jiangsu, China. The culture existed from 4100 to 2600 BC, co-existing with the Yangshao culture. Turquoise, jade and ivory artefacts are commonly found at Dawenkou sites. The earliest examples of alligator drums appear at Dawenkou sites. Neolithic signs, perhaps related to subsequent scripts, such as those of the Shang Dynasty, have been found on Dawenkou pottery.Archaeologists commonly divide the culture into three phases: the early phase (4100–3500 BC), the middle phase (3500–3000 BC) and the late phase (3000–2600 BC). Based on the evidence from grave goods, the early phase was highly egalitarian. The phase is typified by the presence of individually designed, long-stemmed cups (鬹 guī). Graves built with earthen ledges became increasingly common during the latter parts of the early phase. During the middle phase, grave goods began to emphasize quantity over diversity. During the late phase, wooden coffins began to appear in Dawenkou burials. The culture became increasingly stratified, as some graves contained no grave goods while others contained a large quantity of grave goods.

The type site at Dawenkou, located in Tai'an, Shandong, was excavated in 1959, 1974 and 1978. Only the middle layer at Dawenkou is associated with the Dawenkou culture, as the earliest layer corresponds to the Beixin culture and the latest layer corresponds to the early Shandong variant of the Longshan culture. The Dawenkou interacted extensively with the Yangshao culture. "For two and a half millennia of its existence the Dawenkou was, however, in a dynamic interchange with the Yangshao Culture, in which process of interaction it sometimes had the lead role, notably in generating Longshan. Scholars have also noted similarities between the Dawenkou and the Liangzhu culture as well as the related cultures of the Yantze River basin. According to some scholars, the Dawenkou culture may have a link with a pre-Austronesian language. Other researchers also note a similarity between Dawenkou inhabitants and modern Austronesian people in cultural practices such as tooth avulsion and architecture.The physical similarity of the Jiahu people to the later Dawenkou (2600 BC±4300 BC) indicates that the Dawenkou might have descended from the Jiahu, following a slow migration along the middle and lower reaches of the Huai river and the Hanshui valley. Other scholars have also speculated that the Dawenkou originate in nearby regions to the south. The Dawenkou culture descends from the Beixin culture, but is deeply influenced by the northward expanding Longqiuzhuang culture located between the Yangtze and Huai rivers.The people of Dawenkou exhibited a primarily Sinodont dental pattern. The Dawenkou were also physically dissimilar to the neolithic inhabitants of Hemudu, Southern China and Taiwan.

Funerary art

Funerary art is any work of art forming, or placed in, a repository for the remains of the dead. The term encompasses a wide variety of forms, including cenotaphs ("empty tombs"), tomb-like monuments which do not contain human remains, and communal memorials to the dead, such as war memorials, which may or may not contain remains, and a range of prehistoric megalithic constructs. Funerary art may serve many cultural functions. It can play a role in burial rites, serve as an article for use by the dead in the afterlife, and celebrate the life and accomplishments of the dead, whether as part of kinship-centred practices of ancestor veneration or as a publicly directed dynastic display. It can also function as a reminder of the mortality of humankind, as an expression of cultural values and roles, and help to propitiate the spirits of the dead, maintaining their benevolence and preventing their unwelcome intrusion into the lives of the living.

The deposit of objects with an apparent aesthetic intention is found in almost all cultures—Hindu culture, which has little, is a notable exception. Many of the best-known artistic creations of past cultures—from the Egyptian pyramids and the Tutankhamun treasure, to the Terracotta Army surrounding the tomb of the Qin Emperor, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, the Sutton Hoo ship burial and the Taj Mahal—are tombs or objects found in and around them. In most instances, specialized funeral art was produced for the powerful and wealthy, although the burials of ordinary people might include simple monuments and grave goods, usually from their possessions.

An important factor in the development of traditions of funerary art is the division between what was intended to be visible to visitors or the public after completion of the funeral ceremonies. The treasure of the 18th dynasty Pharaoh Tutankhamun, for example, though exceptionally lavish, was never intended to be seen again after it was deposited, while the exterior of the pyramids was a permanent and highly effective demonstration of the power of their creators. A similar division can be seen in grand East Asian tombs. In other cultures, nearly all the art connected with the burial, except for limited grave goods, was intended for later viewing by the public or at least those admitted by the custodians. In these cultures, traditions such as the sculpted sarcophagus and tomb monument of the Greek and Roman empires, and later the Christian world, have flourished. The mausoleum intended for visiting was the grandest type of tomb in the classical world, and later common in Islamic culture.

Gahagan Mounds Site

The Gahagan Mounds Site (16RR1) is an Early Caddoan Mississippian culture archaeological site in Red River Parish, Louisiana. It is located in the Red River Valley. The site is famous for the three shaft burials and exotic grave goods excavated there in the early twentieth century.

Gokstad ship

The Gokstad ship is a 9th-century Viking ship found in a burial mound at Gokstad in Sandar, Sandefjord, Vestfold, Norway. It is currently on display at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, Norway.It is the largest preserved Viking ship in Norway.


Mingqi (Chinese: 冥器 or 明器, p míngqì), sometimes referred to as "spirit objects" or "vessels for ghosts", are Chinese burial goods. They included daily utensils, musical instruments, weapons, armor, and intimate objects such as the deceased's cap, can and bamboo mat. Mingqi also could include figurines, spiritual representations rather than real people, of soldiers, servants, musicians, polo riders, houses, and horses. Extensive use of mingqi during certain periods may either have been an attempt to preserve the image of ritual propriety by cutting costs, or it may have a new idea separating the realm of the dead from that of the living.

Norse funeral

Norse funerals, or the burial customs of Viking Age North Germanic Norsemen (early medieval Scandinavians), are known both from archaeology and from historical accounts such as the Icelandic sagas and Old Norse poetry.

Throughout Scandinavia, there are many remaining tumuli in honour of Viking kings and chieftains, in addition to runestones and other memorials. Some of the most notable of them are at the Borre mound cemetery, in Norway, at Birka in Sweden and Lindholm Høje, and Jelling in Denmark.

A prominent tradition is that of the ship burial, where the deceased was laid in a boat, or a stone ship, and given grave offerings in accordance with his earthly status and profession, sometimes including sacrificed slaves. Afterwards, piles of stone and soil were usually laid on top of the remains in order to create a tumulus. Additional practices included sacrifice or cremation, but the most common was to bury the departed with goods that denoted their social status.

Oseberg Ship

The Oseberg ship (Norwegian: Osebergskipet) is a well-preserved Viking ship discovered in a large burial mound at the Oseberg farm near Tønsberg in Vestfold county, Norway. This ship is commonly acknowledged to be among the finer artifacts to have survived from the Viking Era. The ship and some of its contents are displayed at the Viking Ship Museum at Bygdøy on the western side of Oslo, Norway.

Port an Eilean Mhòir boat burial

The Port an Eilean Mhòir ship burial is a Viking boat burial site in Ardnamurchan, Scotland, the most westerly point on the island of Great Britain. Dated to the 10th century, the burial consists of a Viking boat about 5 metres (16 ft) long by 1.5 metres (4.9 ft) wide in which a man was laid to rest with his shield, sword and spear as well as other grave goods.In 1924 nails, rivets and other finds were discovered by T. C. Lethbridge at Cul na Croise (English: Gorten Bay) in Ardnamurchan, which were characterised at the time as having come from a ship burial; the exact location of this site is lost and so the nature of the finds cannot be determined with certainty. A similar case was the mainland burial site at Huna, in Caithness, discovered in 1935, although this was better documented and is accepted as a ship burial. Nine other Viking ship burials, or possible burials, have been found on Scottish islands, including six in the Hebrides and another three in the Northern Isles.The discovery was announced by archaeologists from the Ardnamurchan Transitions Project, directed by the Universities of Manchester and Leicester, CFA Archaeology and Archaeology Scotland on 18 October 2011. Students and academics have for several years investigated archaeological sites on the Ardnamurchan peninsula and have previously made a number of discoveries, including an Iron Age fort and a Neolithic chambered cairn. The project aims to examine social change on the peninsula from 6,000 years ago to the 18th- and 19th-century Highland Clearances. Its work has been supported by the Ardnamurchan Estate, which owns a large part of the peninsula.The site is located on the north coast of Ardnamurchan at Port an Eilean Mhòir between Achateny and Ockle. The archaeologists had initially thought that the site of the burial was merely a mound of rocks cleared from fields in recent times. On further investigation it was realised that it was a boat burial.

Prehistoric grave goods in the Philippines

Grave goods are utilitarian and ornamental objects buried with the deceased. "Pabaon", as present day Filipinos know, is the tradition of including the priced possessions or items of the dead to its grave because of the belief that these things might be helpful to the deceased as it travels to the life after death. This has been a practice since the neolithic times.

Grave goods are symbol of social activities, and in a way reflects the urge of the people who buried the dead to show his or her social status. Grave goods provide substantial background on the technology, degree of complexity of the society, level of integration with other communities, social or group identities, individual identities, and concepts of wealth and power of the existing community.

The types and prestige values of the grave goods differ among groups, because of cultural differences. In studying grave goods, it is important to know the period of existence and to substantiate its prestige value.

Scar boat burial

The Scar boat burial is a Viking boat burial near the village of Scar, on Sanday, in Orkney, Scotland. The burial, which dates to between 875 and 950 AD, contained the remains of a man, an elderly woman, and a child, along with numerous grave goods. Although the site had to be excavated quickly because of the threat of coastal erosion owing to bad weather conditions, it yielded many important finds.

Ship burial

A ship burial or boat grave is a burial in which a ship or boat is used either as a container for the dead and the grave goods, or as a part of the grave goods itself. If the ship is very small, it is called a boat grave. This style of burial was used among the Germanic peoples, particularly by Viking Age Norsemen. According to the Boxer Codex, ship burials were also practiced by the indigenous peoples of the Philippines.

A unique eyewitness account of a 10th-century ship burial among the Volga Vikings is given by Arab traveller Ibn Fadlan.

Shorwell helmet

The Shorwell helmet is an Anglo-Saxon helmet from the early to mid-sixth century AD found near Shorwell on the Isle of Wight in southern England. It was one of the grave goods of a high-status Anglo-Saxon warrior, and was found with other objects such as a pattern-welded sword and hanging bowl. One of only six known Anglo-Saxon helmets, alongside those from Benty Grange, Sutton Hoo, Coppergate, Wollaston, and Staffordshire, it is the sole example to derive from the continental Frankish style rather than the contemporaneous Northern "crested helmets" used in England and Scandinavia.

The grave was discovered by members of a metal detecting club in May 2004, and excavated by archaeologists that November. Ploughing had destroyed much of the surrounding Anglo-Saxon cemetery, leaving this as the only individually identifiable grave. The helmet had fragmented into around 400 pieces, perhaps in part because of subsoiling, and was originally identified as a "fragmentary iron vessel". Only after it was acquired by the British Museum and reconstructed was it identified as a helmet. It remains in the museum's collection, but as of 2018 is not on display.

Exhibiting hardly any decoration other than a speculative exterior leather covering, the Shorwell helmet was a utilitarian fighting helmet. It was simply and sturdily designed out of eight pieces of riveted iron; its only decorative elements were paired with functional uses. The helmet's plainness belies its significance, for helmets were rare in Anglo-Saxon England, and appear to have been limited to the higher classes. The recovery of only six Anglo-Saxon helmets despite the excavation of thousands of graves suggests that their owners had some status.

Taplow Barrow

The Taplow Barrow is an early medieval burial mound in Taplow Court, an estate in the south-eastern English county of Buckinghamshire. Constructed in the seventh century, when the region was part of an Anglo-Saxon kingdom, it contained the remains of a deceased individual and their grave goods, now mostly in the British Museum. It is often referred to in archaeology as the Taplow burial.

The Taplow burial was made in what archaeologists call the "conversion period", during which the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were undergoing Christianisation. This period saw the erection of "Final Phase" burials: a select number of inhumations featuring lavish grave goods far richer than the graves of the preceding "migration period" (fifth and sixth centuries). The majority of these Final Phase burials were spatially separate from the new churchyard burials, although the Taplow Burial—which was likely placed next to an early church—is one of the few known exceptions. Located atop a hill, the area around it was previously an Iron Age hillfort and offers widespread views of the local landscape.

Interred beneath the mound was a single individual—interpreted by archaeologists as a local chieftain—buried with a range of grave goods. These included military gear such as a sword, three spears, and two shields, as well as other items like drinking horns and glass beakers. Such elite items likely reflected the individual's aristocratic status. Several of these items were of probable Kentish manufacture, suggesting that the individual may have had links with the Kingdom of Kent. Little of the body survived, preventing osteoarchaeological analysis to determine their age or sex, although the content of the grave goods has led archaeologists to believe the individual was male.

The mound was excavated in 1883 by three local antiquarians. At the time, it represented the most lavish Anglo-Saxon burial then known and remained so until the discovery of the ship burial at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk in the 1930s. At the request of the clergyman in charge of the churchyard, the grave goods recovered were donated to the British Museum, where many of them remain on display.


An urn is a vase, often with a cover, that normally has a somewhat narrowed neck above a rounded body and a footed pedestal. Describing a vessel as an "urn", as opposed to a vase or other terms, generally reflects its use rather than any particular shape or origin. The term is especially often used for funerary urns, vessels used in burials, either to hold the cremated ashes or as grave goods, but is used in many other contexts; in catering large vessels for serving tea or coffee are often called "tea-urns", even when they are metal cylinders of purely functional design. Large sculpted vases are often called urns, whether placed outdoors, in gardens or as architectural ornaments on buildings, or kept inside.

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