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Mortuary Traditions and Cultural Exchange in Anatolia

Elspeth R.M. Dusinberre

The inhabitants of Anatolia during the Achaemenid period and Greeks shared an entwined history, shaped not only by war but also by extensive diplomacy, trade, and cultural exchange. Mortuary remains provide some of the most illuminating evidence for these interactions. Across Anatolia, mortuary treatment is tremendously variable. Even at a single site, we may observe multiple means of disposing of the dead. Certain forms follow local traditions, while others demonstrate radical departures that incorporate Greek or other traditions. The degree of variability in mortuary structure demonstrates that the Achaemenid imperial administration did not mandate how people disposed of their dead. In this area, people exercised considerable autonomy, and the agency of decision was, it seems, their own. Indeed, the frequently local, geographically bounded variability suggests that mortuary structures might serve as a way for local Anatolian populaces to claim adherence to pre-Achaemenid traditions and inheritances, to proclaim their local roots and non-Persian identities.

At the same time, however, mortuary inclusions demonstrate remarkable uniformity of social agenda and presentation in signaling membership in or allegiance to the imperial enterprise – particularly among those wealthy enough to be buried with prestige-laden items. These artifacts demonstrate that while mortuary structures showed great local variability, mortuary assemblages did not.

Across Anatolia, the status-signaling mortuary assemblages of the elite display an almost astonishing conformity of visible, semiotically charged material. Such displays of status through wealth expenditure are common in human societies, and their uniformity of expression in Achaemenid Anatolia is significant. It demonstrates the cohesion of those displaying their membership in the authority-laden Achaemenid elite. An interesting aspect of this analysis has to do with the ethnicities of the elite. Mortuary contexts provide us with much of the information we have for considering the elite in Achaemenid Anatolia. Those of high status and authority were not strictly Persian in ethnicity. Indeed, it is difficult to ascertain the ethnicity of a given elite person on the basis of mortuary inclusions. It seems to have mattered more to people to signal "being elite" in their dress and dining than to signal "being Carian" or "being Phrygian" or "being Lycian." Their mortuary structures, however, add nuance and complexity to ethnic signaling. Of great interest is the portrayal of myths we consider "Greek," artistic styles we associate with Greece, and Greek imports: with an enormous array of backgrounds and traditions to draw on, those creating mortuary structures and interring objects with the dead sometimes drew on Greek culture in ways that seem specific and pointed, as is the case with some of the tombs of Lycia, and sometimes seem simply to reflect the norms of daily use, as is the case in the military cemetery at Deve Hüyük on the Euphrates.

Thus mortuary evidence from Clazomenae to Deve Hüyük, from Sinope to Silifke, from the satrapal headquarters at Sardis or Altıntepe to the cist graves of the impoverished, illuminates the relationships between Greek people and ideas and the non-Greek Achaemenid cultures of Anatolia, presents new evidence for Greek-Achaemenid interactions, and allows new interpretations of the human circumstances within the empire and across its permeable borders. It offers a different series of insights than those we gain from textual sources; the dynamic tensions between these different kinds of evidence form some of the most interesting aspects of understanding interactions in Anatolia in the Achaemenid period.

Session/Panel Title

Greeks and Achaemenids: War, Diplomacy, Trade, and Culture

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