Eating the Dead

Eating, Dying and the Memory of the Body:

In many cosmologies and perceptions, eating and dying, food and death are closely connected. Humans are consumed by death, vanish as does food and drink consumed in a mortuary context. Eating and digestion is, therefore, a metaphor for death. Humans do not simply consume food, they are at the same time consumed, albeit within a community. Social group can be defined by commensality. If, therefore, humans construct themselves as social entities through eating and drinking, consumption can be considered to make humans both biologically and socially. Death runs in the opposite direction, unmaking humans as bodies and social persons.

In Melanesian societies mortuary ceremonies are one of the most important institutions. They are crucial in the construction of memory and forgetting. Social forgetting, or ‘killing’ of the memory, severs the social relationship with the deceased and initiates new relationships with the living. Memory is a social rather than an individual process and all memory is collective, structured by group identities. Eating and drinking has mnemonic power. Incorporated into a mortuary context where emotions and sensory stimuli due to food are combined with those of the experience of death, a much more powerful mnemonic device would be produced.

Nachman (1978) argues that mortuary feasting incorporates ‘moral aggression’, symbolic violence which remains implicit. The power of the embodied experiences of death, digestion and bodily expression prevent people from questioning motives and challenging intentions.

The cemetery or the tomb is a controlled space with restricted accesses. Control over the ritual entering mnemoscapes and heterotopias of death constitute a power mechanism.

Mortuary Feasting, Remembering and Forgetting in the Bronze Age Aegean:

Mortuary feasting was practised in the Bronze Age Aegean, although its intensity, character and scale of participation seems to have varied spatially as well as chronologically. Evidence for this includes food remains e.g. animal bones found at Lebena on Crete, the Early Minoan tombs at Ag. Triadha, Krasi and Archanes, and shaft graves on the mainland. Typically these include sheep/goat, cow, pig or birds and are sometimes burnt. Cereals and pulses were found at Lerna. Drinking vessels, jugs, amphorae and other ceramics occur in large numbers. There are also outer chambers, platforms, paved areas, ‘altars’ and other delimited spaces outside the tombs, which indicate ritual ceremonies including eating and drinking.

One possible objection to the above evidence concerns the possibility that the remains may represent libations and offerings to the dead. However, such theories are often extrapolated from later perceptions as evidenced by the Homeric epic and classical writings. Also, the disarticulated and butchered bones suggest they are the remains of meals and the number of vessels suggests a large number of participants.

The main elements from ethnographic evidence are present; eating and drinking, dancing, possible narcotic usage (incense burners). As is ‘secondary burial’ or ‘clearance’ where bodies are removed from their original location and deposited in adjoining chambers after disarticulation. The intentional destruction, or ‘killing’, of pottery or bronze figurines and weapons is widely recorded.

There are hints of endocannibalism, the consumption of dead bodies. e.g. the deliberately broken bones from Ag. Kyriaki where the largest bone is about 6cm in length and most appear to be deliberately broken and five are clearly chopped or cut at both ends. Burnt bones are often plentiful at other sites. The cooking pot at Vorou contained the skeletal remains of a child.

At Ag. Kyriaki there is a significant increase in proportion of cups compared to other vessels in later phase of its use. This may indicate greater participation and may be connected to the intensification of competition among the elite. There also appears to be greater emphasis on the individual over the communal in this period.

The number of participants was still small compared to neopalatial tomb at Poros however. This site also showed greater standardisation of pottery vessels. This may reflect the political tensions and competition among factions.


  • Food consumption is an active, multifaceted social phenomenon, which is implicated in the construction of social persons and evokes senses, emotions and feelings. As such, it is intimately linked with the condition of human embodiment, including that of death.
  • Food is a powerful mnemonic device that can play a key role in remembering and forgetting associated with the processes of death.
  • The mnemoscapes of death offer a unique arena for the re-enactment of the contestations of power.
  • There is plenty of evidence for this in the Bronze Age Aegean, along with other devices such as dancing, consumption of psychoactive substances, and the ‘killing’ of memory with ‘sacrifices’ of pottery, weapons etc.


Hamilakis, Y (1998) Eating the Dead: Mortuary Feasting and the Politics of Memory in the Aegean Bronze Age Societies. In Cemetery and Society in the Aegean Bronze Age. Edited by K Branigan. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, pp 115-132.


3 responses to “Eating the Dead

  1. Another good article on cannibalism and the human pre-occupation with death – I even learnt two new words, ‘mnemoscapes’ and ‘heterotopias’. Also thanks for the mention at Four Stone Hearth, and I’m glad you enjoyed the read. Incidentally, I’m booked to see the sites at Atapuerca next week, so I’ll hopefully post something on that with some pictures.

  2. Pingback: Anthropology Carnival: Four Stone Hearth « Good Tithings

  3. Thank you for your comments, Tim. This sort of theme is one of the topics I particularly find fascinating, as I believe many people do. Perhaps because ultimately death links us all.

    I look forward to reading about Atapuerca.

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