Enterramiento campaniforme

Archaeology of the death



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Archaeology of the death

The temathic topics brings us over to different ways of understanding the transit to Further away in the Iberian Peninsula and in some of the most important civilizations of the ancient Mediterranean, like the Egyptian and the Greek.

The archeology of death examines the different types of burial and the trousseaus associated with them in order to understand the social position of the deceased within the society to which he belonged and consequently deduce the main features of the social organization of its cultural group and the ideology that was sustaining it. The funeral rite also reflects the collective religious beliefs of the group to which the deceased belonged.

The first burials in the collective neolithic societies, the first individual graves in the bronze age, the spectacular aristocratic tombs of Iberian peoples, Roman and medieval sarcophagus, the Egyptian funeral camera or the Greek necropolis give us to know one of the cultural aspects common to all human societies: the funeral rite.


Prehistory: Neolithic and Chalcolithic (5,600 – 2,200 BC)


The First Burials

Peasant groups lived in settlements and buried their dead in places nearby. At first they buried people in individual graves, in caves and rock fissures, but over time the individual tomb was replaced by group burials, with many bodies successively placed in caves or chambers made of large stone slabs, rather like family pantheons.

One of these collective burial sites was found in the Cave of Los Murciélagos in Granada. According to the site's discoverer, twelve bodies were found here, arranged in a circle around a female corpse, as well as other bodies scattered across different chambers, with remnants of the clothing, footwear and belongings with which they were buried. These possessions included remarkable personal ornaments and finely woven baskets of esparto grass. Some of these objects, deposited as personal grave goods or offerings, are truly unique, like the gold diadem found beside a skeleton. Archaeologists have interpreted this exclusive use of a valuable object as an indication that this egalitarian peasant community was beginning to make social distinctions.


Primeros enterramientos

Planta 0, Sala 7

Prehistory: Bronze Age (2,200 – 850 BC)

The Male Warrior

For the first time in history, in Bronze Age populations certain individuals began to rise above the rest. They were the young warrior chieftains, whose graves can be identified thanks to the fact that only they were entitled to use certain luxury objects and weapons. Luxurious Bell-Beaker pottery, archer's wrist-guards to protect the forearm from the sharp impact of the twanging bowstring, arrowheads and daggers made of copper, the prestigious new metal—these were their identifying symbols, which were buried with them in individual tombs or separately in collective tombs. Burials with these grave goods have appeared across a large part of Europe and the Iberian Peninsula, indicating that the elite members of different groups were in contact with each other. They denote a conception of power as something linked to the possession of weapons and the celebration of certain funerary or memorial rituals, where people came together to drink alcoholic beverages like beer out of the beakers from which Bell-Beaker pottery takes its name.


Enterramiento Campaniforme

Planta 0, Sala 8

Prehistory: Bronze Age (2,200 – 850 BC)

Cist of Herrerías

The cist of Herrerías is a burial typical of the metal-working groups who inhabited southeast Iberian and founded what is known as the Argar culture. Inside this cist or box formed by 6 stone slabs, the pioneering archaeologist Luis Siret found a skeleton whose arms and legs had been folded against the left side, perhaps to make it easier to bind the corpse. The dead man's grave goods consisted of his weapons, as befitted men of certain social status, and pottery vessels which his relatives had filled with food offerings to ensure his survival.

The most striking thing about this burial is that it was built, like all tombs in Argaric settlements, beneath the floor of a house. This was done to keep the dead ancestor close to the community of the living. However, not everyone was entitled to a burial, and those who were did not all have the same kind of grave goods or tomb. A comparative study of the tombs at Argaric settlements reveals gender differences and increasingly obvious signs of social inequality as positions of power became hereditary, a fact proved by the discovery of several children's tombs containing grave goods.



Planta 0, Sala 9

Prehistory: Bronze Age (2,200 – 850 BC)

Diadem from Caravaca de la Cruz

This gold diadem is a unique piece, as all the diadems found in the tombs of metal-working Argar culture settlements, though similar in form, are made of silver. For this reason, archaeologists have interpreted it as a luxury object reserved solely for women, as it appears in a female burial, who used it to publicly display their power and social prestige.

The rings, bracelets and necklaces of gold, silver or ivory, with which important members of the Argaric community—men and women alike—adorned themselves and were buried, have also been interpreted in this sense. These symbolic elements were visual reminders of the social distinctions that characterised these hierarchically organised societies.

The power of these social elite stemmed from the fact that they controlled agricultural and metallurgical production, long-distance trade and the defence of the villagers.


Diadema de Caravaca

Planta 0, Sala 9


Inhabitants of Inland Iberia. Stand from Calaceite

Between the ninth and the fifth century BC, the communities who lived on the Central Plateau and in the Ebro, Douro and Tagus river valleys evolved thanks to the cultural influence of Mediterranean and Central European civilisations, although the degree of assimilation varied depending on the nature and intensity of each group’s foreign relations. The trade network of luxury goods established by the Phoenicians and Greeks was monopolised by the dominant social classes, who made sure that only they were able to use these prestige commodities. They also adopted rituals typical of the Mediterranean elite, in which braziers were necessary elements for burning perfumes, especially incense, and they copied their custom of burying the dead with rich grave goods consisting of weapons and objects from the funerary banquet.

This elegant bronze piece was a stand for a perfume censer or brazier, used to elevate and enhance the ceremonial vessel. The horse figure, an animal believed to transport the dead to the afterlife in the Indo-European tradition, suggests a funerary significance. By studying its archaeological context, we have been able to get a better idea of its meaning. The piece was discovered by chance in a tomb along with other grave goods, which consisted of a breastplate decorated with concentric circles, greaves and two swords. Alongside this battle gear, which undoubtedly belonged to a person of high standing, there were fragments of objects related to ceremonial rituals, such as three bronze handles from a vessel and a bronze ladle. This motley assortment of objects has also been found in contemporaneous tombs in southeast France, which allows us to deduce that the occupants of these graves had the same aristocratic status and received similar ritual ceremonies associated with that rank.

Soporte de Calaceite

Planta 1, Sala 10


Tartessus. The Aliseda Hoard

Tartessus is mentioned in the Bible as a land rich in silver at the far western end of the Mediterranean Sea. Archaeological data confirms that this civilisation existed in southwest Iberia between the eighth and sixth centuries BC. However, the origins of Tartessian culture date back to the previous century, when aristocrats in the southern Iberian Peninsula came into contact with the Phoenicians and adopted certain aspects of eastern culture. This cultural “Orientalisation” reinforced the power of the local nobility, who controlled the trade and distribution of luxury objects for their own benefit. They hoarded and exhibited these items as visible symbols of their power and were eventually buried with them, as we can tell from the rich grave goods found in their tombs. The Aliseda Hoard is one of the most extraordinary examples. It comprises a total of 285 gold objects, some of which are set with stones, a bronze mirror and a libation set consisting of a silver brazier and cup and a small glass jug with an Egyptian inscription. The decorative motifs are of eastern origin, but the pieces were made at a local workshop by craftsmen who had mastered the Phoenician techniques of granulation, soldering and filigree.

Tesoro de Aliseda

Planta 1, Sala 10

Protohistory: Iberian peoples

The Funerary Rite: Cremation. The Warrior Vase

The Iberians attached great importance to the funerary rite of cremation, although the complexity of the ritual depended on the social status of the deceased. If the dead person had been important in life, the funeral pyre was piled high with quality wood and the body was placed on top, dressed for the occasion and accompanied by personal objects. Then the pyre was lit, and while the body was cremated offerings and perfumes were tossed into the flames. Afterwards, the ashes were stored in an urn. The urn was then placed in the tomb. Meanwhile, the dead man’s relatives, friends and clients held a ritual banquet beside the grave.

The kalathos known as the Archena Warrior Vase is an exceptional piece because of the scenes covering its sides. It was used as a cinerary urn for the warrior who commissioned it, which explains why the scenes seem to glorify the dead man. In them we see a struggle between two foot soldiers armed with spears and shields while a wolf looks on. One warrior has pierced the other with his spear. At his feet lies the figure of a wounded or dead warrior. This is followed by a hunting scene in which a rider is chasing two wild boars after managing to sink his spear into one of them. Again, a human figure lies at the horse’s feet. The final scene shows a rider poised to strike a foot soldier with his spear, while the latter attempts to protect himself with a large oval shield. In each scene, the identity of the hero is obvious: it is the dead man whose ashes were placed inside the kalathos. He is the victor in every episode, all of which have highly symbolic significance related to triumph over death and the warrior’s elevation to the status of hero by virtue of his feats.

Vaso de los guerreros

Planta 1, Sala 11

Protohistory: Iberian peoples

Aristocratic Tombs. A Tomb for a Monarch: Pozo Moro

Iberian cemeteries were highly visible landmarks situated beside roads. The monumentality, richness and location of the tombs were a reflection of an increasingly hierarchical society, although we do not know how a large part of the population was buried. Persons of high social standing were buried in monumental tombs which might take the form of a tower with sculptures of guardian animals at its corners.

This tower-shaped tomb is a one-of-a-kind discovery because its decorative reliefs are vital sources of knowledge on how eastern myths influenced the Iberian mind. In them we find an iconographic programme that glorifies the deceased as the founder of a noble bloodline, although not all scholars subscribe to this interpretation. The cycle opens with the Phoenician goddess Astarte, coiffed like the Egyptian goddess Hathor, who is holding two huge lotus blossoms, symbols of fertility and rebirth. It continues with an image of the hero carrying the tree of life, which he has won by defeating the monsters and which guarantees his immortality. This is followed by a banquet scene. A monstrous two-headed creature holds a wild boar’s leg in one hand and a bowl with a human figure—perhaps the dead man—in the other. The creature is about to devour the man, who will thus cross over to the realm of the gods. The programme ends with the figure of a warrior fighting monsters and a sexual scene in which a male character is seen coupling with a goddess. If the man is the deceased, this union suggests that his descendants—in other words, the local aristocracy—are part divine.

Tumba de Pozo Moro. Detalle

Planta 1, Sala 12

Protohistory: Iberian peoples

Lady of Baza

The famous piece called the Lady of Baza is an anthropomorphic cinerary urn, skilfully carved out of limestone by an Iberian sculptor in 400 BC. It represents an important woman in Iberian society. The individualised facial features seem to portray a specific person, richly garbed in a tunic and cloak and bedecked with ostentatious jewellery that denotes an eastern influence. She is seated on a throne which has a cavity under the seat where the cremated remains of the dead woman were found.
This sculpture was discovered while excavating a tomb in the Iberian necropolis at Baza, the ancient city of Basti, in Granada. This same tomb also yielded grave goods consisting of luxury pottery pieces and four sets of weapons and armour, possible souvenirs of the mock battles that may have been staged as part of her funeral rites in a manner befitting a heroic warrior. The use of certain divine symbols, like the winged attachments to the back of the throne and the bird held in her hand, underscore the connection between the sphere of the gods and this powerful woman, revered by her clan as the great ancestress and founder of their aristocratic bloodline.

Dama de Baza

Planta 1, Sala 11

Protohistory. Celtic peoples

The Necropolis, a Mirror of Society. Pectoral from Aguilar de Anguita

The preferred funerary ritual among the Celtic peoples was cremation. The cremated remains of the deceased were placed in a vessel that served as a funerary urn and buried in a pit with the grave goods. The grave was then covered with a tumulus or surrounded by stone slabs and marked by a stela. If the deceased was a warrior, his weapons would be ritually decommissioned, burned and buried with him. Certain burials could only have belonged to a chieftain given the quantity and quality of the grave goods. This is the case of these burial offerings, consisting of offensive and defensive weapons, two horse bits—one for training and another for riding—and sundry bronze clothing accessories, such as a large disc pectoral, a helmet, a belt buckle and a fibula.

The pectoral consists of two bronze discs, one for the chest and one for the back, with various discoid and oval plates suspended from chains. Both the discs and the plates are decorated with a repoussé design of concentric circles and small incised lines, which can be interpreted as patterns with astral symbolism that may have been intended to protect the wearer. The pectoral probably belonged to a Celtiberian chieftain, who would have worn it over a leather shirt to advertise his exalted social status at ceremonies and celebrations. It was deposited in his grave along with his offensive and defensive weapons, the majority made of iron, and various clothing accessories. Some of these superbly crafted objects are clearly related to the Iberian world.

Pectoral de Anguita

Planta 1, Sala 14

Roman Hispania

Funerary Monuments.Sarcophagus of Orestes

Hispano-Romans saw death as an everyday occurrence and believed it was contagious, which explains why cemeteries were located outside the city. Everyone, even the poorest of the poor, took pains to ensure that they were buried and had a tomb, but for powerful families funerary rituals were also opportunities to flaunt their status. The wealthier the family, the more opulent and lavish the funeral procession, because exorbitant spending was an outward sign of the intensity of their grief and their status in society. For this same reason, they ordered beautifully decorated sarcophagi and placed them in monumental mausoleums, which stood out above the altar stones and stelae marking other tombs.

This sarcophagus was imported from Rome by a wealthy noble family who displayed it in the family mausoleum as the final resting place of a loved one. Unlike urns, sarcophagi had large surface areas that were perfect for illustrating stories which reflected the deceased person's values and beliefs. This one narrates the Greek tragedy of the revenge of Orestes, a common theme on Roman sarcophagi although its funerary significance is difficult to understand.
In different scenes we see Orestes, son of Clytemnestra and King Agamemnon, moving towards his tragic end on a journey that begins when he murders his mother and her lover to avenge his father's death. His friend Pylades, his old nurse and a servant witness it all. After taking his revenge, Orestes flees, hounded by the Furies who threaten him with the snake of remorse and illuminate the path of their pursuit with a torch. Succumbing to fatigue and guilt, Orestes seeks refuge at Delphi where, surrounded by the exhausted Furies, he begs for Apollo's protection but is refused. He then flies to Athens, where he is finally acquitted by the vote of the goddess Athena.

Sarcófago de Orestes

Planta 1, Sala 21

The Middle Ages. Late Antiquity (4th-5th century)

The Spread of Christianity. Memorial Plaque of Ursicinus

After the Edict of Milan was decreed in the year 313, Christianity made inroads throughout the Iberian Peninsula, particularly among the powerful landowners in rural areas. The new religion altered funerary rituals, and inhumation became the norm.

This colourful mosaic found at Alfaro, Logroño, is a funerary plaque that once covered the tomb of the well-to-do person it depicts, probably a dominus or master of a villa. The inscriptions tell us that his name was URSICINUS, that he died at the age of 47 and that he was survived by an eight-year-old daughter and his wife Meleta, who dedicated this plaque to him. The composition includes Christian signs, such as the Chi-Rho or anagram of Christ’s name, as well as pagan symbols like the leafy wreath that encircles it, adding a reference to triumph over death. This combined use of pagan and Christian symbols shows that Christianity was still in the process of defining its iconographic programme in the mid-fourth century, when this plaque was made.

Lauda de Ursicinus

Planta 1, Sala 23

The Middle Ages: Visigoths (6th-7th century)

The Necropolis

Tombs from the Visigothic period have been found to contain numerous grave goods, even though this practice was not part of the Christian rite and was in fact banned on several occasions from the earliest days of Christianity and during the Visigothic era. Most of the objects were clothing accessories, such as belt buckles and brooches, or personal ornaments like earrings and rings. The contents of these burial offerings also allow us to distinguish between male and female graves. Men’s graves contain swords, scabbards and knives along with brooches and buckles, while women’s graves more frequently yield personal ornaments like brooches, fibulas, earrings, necklaces and bracelets. Tombs with gravestones have also been found. The ones displayed here bear Christian symbols such as crosses or birds and Latin inscriptions to perpetuate the memory of the deceased.

Ajuares visigodos

Planta 1, Sala 23

The Middle Ages: Al- Andalus (8th-15th century)

Memorial Stone

Cylindrical stones like this one marked the location of graves in Hispano-Islamic cemeteries on the city outskirts, where relatives and friends would go to pay their respects. This is an example of how the tombs of persons of high socioeconomic status were identified, although Islam preaches the equality of all Muslims in the face of death and a significant number of graves had no markers. However, what makes this memorial stone special is the fact that it has two inscriptions, which tell us that it initially belonged to a Muslim and was later reused by a Jew. The principal inscription on the front is written in Kufic characters against a recessed background, as was typical in Toledo, and provides information about the dead man to whom it was dedicated. The deceased was an important person, the vizier Abu Omar, son of Musa. The year of his death (1071) is inscribed alongside two suras from the Qur’an. Meanwhile, the Hebrew inscription on the back mentions Meir, son of Yahuda.

Cipo funerario

Planta 1, Sala 23

The Middle Ages: The Christian Kingdoms(8th-15th century)

The Social Dimension of Death. Tomb of Constanza of Castile

Being buried inside a church was a privilege reserved for the nobility and eminent dignitaries, although the location and decorative richness of the tombs reflected the differences in status among those buried there. The Royal sepulchres—monumental free-standing structures—were adorned with funerary scenes. Outside the church, near its walls or in cemeteries, the rest of the urban and rural populace was buried in simple pit graves.
Lady Constanza was the granddaughter of King Peter I and prioress of the Monastery of Santo Domingo el Real in Madrid until her death in 1478. She was buried in this alabaster sarcophagus, an excellent example of Hispano-Flemish funerary art, which was placed in an arcosolium in the church choir. The recumbent figure of Lady Constanza is wearing a white nun’s habit, and the hands clasp a string of rosary beads and a book. The tomb’s iconographic programme reflects two facets of her personality. On the one hand, the figures of the four virtues underscore her moral rectitude and ideal of perfection as a woman consecrated to God. On the other hand, the coat of arms supported by two angels proclaims her descent from the royal family of Castile, as was common on noble tombs of the day, although in this case the arms were also intended to vindicate her family. For this same reason, the mortal remains of her father and grandfather were transferred to the monastery to give them the burial they deserved but had been denied, in the case of Peter I, by the express order of his fratricidal brother, Henry of Trástamara.

Sepulcro de Doña Constanza

Planta 2, Sala 27

The Nile: Egypt and Nubia

Funerary Myths. The final judgment

In their vision of the cosmos, the Egyptians believed that their fate in the afterlife depended on whether or not their actions on earth had helped to maintain the cosmic order by practising or promoting social justice, and that they would be judged accordingly after death.

The cosmic order was established at the moment of creation, illustrated here by an image of the goddess of heaven separated from the god of earth by the upraised arms of the god of the air. Out of the primeval chaos, creation brought order and balance, which the Egyptians called Maat and represented as a delicate feather. Maat governed life in Egypt and human actions. After death, every Egyptian would be held accountable for his/her deeds.

On this sarcophagus, the soul of the deceased is depicted as a bird with a human head and accompanied by divine protectors. The goddess of the West leads the dead man to be judged by Osiris. In his presence, the gods weigh the deceased’s heart against Maat, the weightless feather, on a set of scales. If the heart weighed more than the feather, indicating that the dead man’s actions were unjustified, it would be consumed by the devourer of hearts and doomed to eternal death. However, if the scales were evenly balanced, the deceased would be deemed “true of voice” and live forever.

Egyptians believed that having a sarcophagus was important because it protected the mummy, thereby ensuring its survival. These beautiful painted boxes did not just provide physical protection for the corpse; their colourful pictures and hieroglyphics kept the deceased safe on the journey to the afterlife. Inside and out, on the bottom, the inner and outer lids, front and back, the formulas, prayers and spells written on them eased the deceased’s path through the netherworld.

Sarcófago del Juicio de Osiris

Planta 2, Sala 34

The Nile: Egypt and Nubia

In the tomb of Ihe

We are now standing before what might have been the final dwelling place of Ihe, a singer in the house of Amun. Her tomb would have been located on the west bank of the Nile. On the burial chamber walls, we see illustrations of the netherworld that will accompany her in eternity.

Her mummified body, preserved from decay, is inside the sarcophagus. Before entering this place, an ancient magical rite gave her the power of speech and hunger, sight and hearing, breath and movement.

Four stone jars beside Ihe contain her internal organs. The lids represent the four sons of Horus, with the heads of a sparrow

Tumba de Ihé

Planta 2, Sala 35


White lekythoi for mourning

This slender lekythos was the symbol of death for the Greeks. It was used to store the scented oils with which the corpse was purified, and after the funeral it was placed in the grave as a sign of respect. For the Greeks, death was a terrible separation. Perhaps fearing they would forget, they drew portraits of their loved ones on these vessels, to remember them as vibrant, living beings. In Greece, the colour of mourning was white, like these funerary vessels or the marble of their stelae and tombs.

Grief was white and luminous, like the light the Greeks hoped their dead would find at the end of the dark, uncertain path they had to travel. They knew that a fearsome ferryman would accompany them to the other shore, but they did not know what awaited them there.



Planta 2, Sala 36