Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Books: Prehistory of Death Volume 57 Number 4, July/August 2004
by Alexandra Witze

First sex, then death: No one can accuse archaeologist Timothy Taylor of shying away from weighty topics. By day a specialist in Iron Age Europe at England's University of Bradford, Taylor is the author of 1997's The Prehistory of Sex (1997) and now The Buried Soul: How Humans Invented Death (Boston: Beacon Press, 2004; $27.50), which could just as easily be titled The Prehistory of Death.

The modern world, Taylor argues, suffers from "visceral insulation," an aseptic distance from the corporeal world, especially death. Spend a few hours with The Buried Soul and your viscera will be insulated no longer. Cannibalism, vampirism, ritualized slayings of young children--all are fodder for Taylor's attempt to re-engage the modern senses. This book is not so much about ancient concepts of death as it is about dead bodies, and lots of them.


Taylor lingers over evidence for the ignominious executions of those who dwelled on the fringes of society and were marginalized even in death. Take for example the famous bodies discovered in European peat bogs. They were often brutally slain: poisoned at first, then struck by axes, then garroted, and finally thrown face down to drown in the muck.

As Taylor points out, sex and death have always been inextricably linked. In a Viking funeral scene that the author returns to repeatedly, a slave girl is gang raped and publicly murdered in order to accompany her king into the afterlife. This tenth-century ritual, recorded in detail by a fascinated witness, serves as a launching point to discuss the dangerous borderlands between newly dead souls and the living.

The Buried Soul is replete with unexpected insights. Consider Taylor's description of cannibalism; in one sense, he writes, it serves to keep the dead safe and warm inside the body, rather than rotting alone in the cold ground. Any book that can make cannibalism sound reasonable deserves a close read.

Alexandra Witze is a science reporter for the Dallas Morning News.

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© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America