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Burying the Dead

Run your cursor over the scene above to view some of the archeological finds of grave objects from the Loma Sandia cemetery and other localities.

Archeologists depend heavily on artifacts and other physical traces of “material culture” to understand how people lived in the ancient past. Much has been learned about diet, technology, and other basic aspects of how people made a living off the land; less is known, however, about the rituals associated with burying the dead.

Although we cannot hope to understand most of what took place following the deaths of loved ones among native societies in the prehistoric past, several sites in South Texas provide us with an abundance of evidence that silently speaks to the ritual life that accompanied death. Archaic-period cemeteries, such as the remarkable Loma Sandia site near Three Rivers, Texas (the inspiration for the scene above), show that the dead were carefully interred in graves or pits and often accompanied by offerings or personal belongings.  

At Loma Sandia, the fascinating array of grave goods ranged from the equipment of daily life—dart points, drills, hammerstones, manos, large grinding slabs, and whole “tool kits” used to make chipped stone tools—to more rarified possessions—carved shell pendants, caches, or “sets” of finely made tools, deer antler racks, and smoking pipes. These special items may have been used for ornamentation of the dead or were part of the burial ritual itself. For example, red and yellow ocher may have been used to paint the body or adorn the grave, while clusters of well-made artifacts seem to be offerings to honor the dead.

To learn more about prehistoric cemeteries, take a look at the Loma Sandia, Olmos Dam, Morhiss, and Silo entries on the Ancient Places layer of South Texas Plains map and read about Mortuary Traditions in the Prehistory section.