Whether ritual or random, human beings have long been buried with meaningful objects meant as symbolic gestures or items to help or comfort them in the next world.
From animals to jewelry to even Thor’s hammer, there’s a long history of such grave goods. Now we can add slaves to the list. A decade ago, scientists unearthed multiple Viking graves in Flakstad, Norway (map) that contained a total of ten bodies. Some graves contained the skeletal remains of more than one body, but only one skull. The other bodies had been decapitated.Oseberg, a 9th-century burial ship, at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, Norway. Photograph by Kim Walker, Robert Harding/Corbis
DNA analysis of these headless bodies showed that they weren’t related, and isotope analysis of their diet revealed they ate more seafood—a sign of lower class—than the complete individual, who ate more expensive land-based foods, according to the study, to be published in the January 2014 edition of Archaeological Science.
The conclusion? These headless bodies may have been slaves who were murdered and included in their master’s grave as gifts, according to the authors. (Also see “51 Headless Vikings Found in English Execution Pit?”)
For instance, it could be that the decapitated person had murdered the other person and was symbolically put in the same grave as the victim; without written accounts it’s simply hard to know for certain, said Anders Winroth, a Viking expert at Yale University.
The idea of servants being killed in order to join their masters in the next world is certainly not unheard of, but other interpretations can also be put on such unusual finds.
He notes the acclaimed account of Arabic traveler Ibn Fadlan, “who claimed to have witnessed a woman being killed in order to join her master in death.” (The girl is reported to have volunteered.)
Here’s a look at what’s been buried with the dead over the millennia.
“In pre-Christian times people were buried with all kinds of stuff,” said Winroth, whose next book on the subject, A New History of the Viking Age, will be published in 2014. During this period, symbolic ships or real, entire ships were buried with the dead as grave gifts.
The grandest of these is the Oseberg ship, which contained furniture and food, including a single walnut—an exotic, expensive item for Scandinavians at the time and one that would have denoted status, Winroth said. (Also see “Pictures: Mysterious Viking-era Graves Found With Treasure.”)
The Oseberg also contained intact skeletons of two women, plus “ten horses and three dogs, all decapitated,” he said.
“Clearly ships must have been important in the way that people thought about death, and to us what would seem the most obvious reason was that you sailed to wherever you were going in the afterworld.
“If you decapitate ten horses, you’re going to have a lot of blood … so you have something to sail on, which you need, because you’re on land.”
As for Viking people of lower status, they weren’t buried with ships but did enter the next world in their finest clothing and with common but treasured objects. For instance, men were often buried with knives and women with keys, “because it was the women who held the keys to the household.”
Spiritually significant artifacts found among Viking graves included cross pendants worn by Christian converts “or people who were buried with a hammer,” symbolic of Thor’s hammer, Winroth said.
“That seems to almost have been done in conscious emulation of and opposition to the cross, because you didn’t used to have a lot of hammers,” but suddenly they began to appear among remains. (Related: “’Thor’s Hammer’ Found in Viking Graves.”)
Cro-Magnons had rich and varied burials, including one 28,000-year-old site in which three individuals buried together wore garments adorned with thousands of hand-carved ivory beads and were buried with, among artful and everyday objects, straightened mammoth tusks, according to a New York Times review of the book Becoming Human: Evolution and Human Uniqueness.
Fast-forward to 21st-century life, and people are still taking grave goods with them when they go. Whether you consider it sacred or mundane or a little bit of both, the mobile phone is an object that typifies current culture.
In 2008 (eons ago, as far as the digital age is concerned) NBC News reported that more people were being interred with their mobile devices.
Bonus: They were still getting calls.
According to NBC, Marion Seltzer, wife of Manhattan attorney John Jacobs, who died in 2005, continued to pay his phone bill and call him.
Frank R. Perman, of Perman Funeral Home Inc. in Pittsburgh, described a funeral for a young man whose cell phone, though on silent, lit up with a flow of calls during his visitation.
What would you do if you called a departed loved one and got a text back that said “BRB”?
The ancient Egyptians thought the same thing, and the number of animals that were mummified—many to keep humans company on the eternal road trip—is staggering. A stunning number and variety of animals were mummified, some as company, others as food, some as “votive mummies,” offerings to the gods on behalf of their owners.
And though kings may have gone to rest with more dramatic menageries, A.R. Williams writes in National Geographic magazine that “a commoner at Abydos, [Egypt], named Hapimen was laid to rest with a small dog curled at his feet.”
And isn’t one good dog all the company anyone needs? (Also read about animal mummies in National Geographic magazine.)
The kings of ancient China also took many of the comforts of home with them to the grave, and some of those were on show in The Search for Immortality: Tomb Treasures of Han China, a 2012 exhibit of grave goods from the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to A.D. 220).
Many dazzling artifacts were on display, including surreal replicas of swaying dancers to entertain the departed and a jade weight in the form of what may have been a tamed bear (you can see the virtual exhibition on the above link).
The burial chamber also included a bathroom with a stone toilet—a potentially new meaning for the phrase,“When you gotta go, you gotta go.”
Speaking of thrones, most of us have a favorite comfy chair, but Reuben John Smith—who died in Buffalo, New York, in 1899—took the concept to the great beyond.
The website Find-a-Grave reports that Smith was buried in a brand new russet leather chair, sitting up, with a checkerboard in his lap and one tomb key in his pocket. He had given orders for the one that locked the door to be destroyed.
What, you’re thinking, no snacks?
Too bad he didn’t know Arch West, the inventor of Doritos (and thus, for some of us, a patron saint of snack foods).
When West died of natural causes at the age of 97 in 2011, the Los Angeles Times blog reported that the family planned to sprinkle Doritos in the grave before the urn was interred.
A cushy chair and salty snacks—it’s all some of us need know of heaven.