19-2019, tome 116, 4, p.705-724 - Bruno Boulestin — Faut-il en finir avec la sépulture collective (et sinon qu’en faire) ?

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19-2019, tome 116, 4, p.705-724 - Bruno Boulestin — Faut-il en finir avec la sépulture collective (et sinon qu’en faire) ?

Faut-il en finir avec la sépulture collective (et sinon qu'en faire) ?


Bruno Boulestin


Résumé : Depuis les années 1960, l'appellation de sépulture collective est d'un emploi commun en archéologie. Elle a pourtant suscité de nombreuses discussions, notamment parce qu'elle est aussi utilisée pour désigner des structures et des fonctionnements observés en ethnographie et qu'il existe de ce fait une tendance permanente pour lui accorder une signification sociale de plus en plus grande. Cela amène à se poser deux questions : pouvons-nous conserver sous sa forme actuelle la terminologie employée ou devons-nous la modifier ? Et, surtout, pouvons-nous continuer à utiliser le même concept à la fois en archéologie et en ethnologie, et si oui à quelles conditions ?

En définissant correctement l'unité analytique de référence qu'est la sépulture, puis en examinant les différentes manières possibles d'y réunir des morts, on peut finalement montrer que la terminologie française actuelle se rapportant à la sépulture collective est tout à fait opérationnelle en archéologie comme en ethnologie et est transposable d'une discipline à une autre dès lors que l'on évite absolument d'intégrer une fonction sociale dans les définitions. On peut toutefois apporter quelques ajustements à ces dernières pour lever certaines ambiguïtés et en assurer la cohérence, ainsi que quelques précisions d'utilisation.

Par ailleurs, l'opposition classique entre la sépulture multiple et la sépulture collective apparaît fondamentale, parce qu'elle permet de dégager un comportement mortuaire particulier et de conjecturer que toutes les sépultures collectives archéologiques ont été établies pour réunir des individus liés par la parenté.


Mots-clés : sépulture collective, sépulture multiple, sépulture plurielle, rassemblement des morts, parenté, terminologie.


Abstract: The expression "collective burial" has been in use among archaeologists since the 19th century, but has become increasingly successful particularly from the 1960's, along with the development in France of the research on Neolithic funerary ensembles and of funerary archaeology. Soon enough, parallel questioning about what was (or what should be) a collective burial arose, and its definition has evolved and been discussed many a time. In particular, since archaeologists make use of that term to describe also by analogy features and operations observed in ethnography, they tend to embed more and more functional aspects in its definition: at the beginning, "collective" was a purely descriptive term, later it referred to a functioning, and finally was recently regarded as describing a social function. This leads to two questions: should the terminology in use be kept in its present form or does it need to be modified? And above all, can the same concept be used in both archaeology and ethnology, and if so, under which conditions?

Answers to these questions begin with an accurate definition of a reference analytical unit. Obviously that unit is the burial, though it is necessary to specify at first that it corresponds always to a volume, and then that this is the smallest possible and non-movable volume (in other words an immovable asset) containing the body. On this basis, one can generally establish that there are only two possible main ways to group the dead, either by gathering the burials in a larger volume or in the same space, or by gathering the dead themselves in the same burial. The latter choice matches exactly the French archaeological definition of the plural burial (a burial containing at least two people), and it is safe to say that this definition can be applied to ethnology as well. Identifying a plural burial in archaeology is not always obvious, since finding two dead people in the same place is not enough evidence. One has to assume that the space in which they were placed was intended as a single volume, and that they were deposited during a unitary use (in other words during a same phase of use), hence conveying the will to bring them together. If there is any doubt regarding one or the other aspect, it becomes impossible to speak of plural burial, and one can only mention a set of individuals. Moreover, specifying that space as a burial requires another condition: there must be enough arguments to think that the gathering of the dead results indeed from a funerary practice. If not, the term gathering (of individuals) can be used, whereas the terms deposit or deposition, which must be used with great care, should be avoided.

There are many possible ways to classify the types of plural burials encountered in ethnohistory; the most relevant though is to divide them into two main categories: those that are used only once, and those that are used several times. The former perfectly match the French archaeological definition of a multiple burial, whereas the latter tally exactly with the collective burials, although in this case precisely it is necessary to slightly adjust the classic definition in order to clarify some ambiguities. This is also the occasion to embed in the definition the archaeologically imperative notion of demonstrability. Consequently, the multiple burial can be defined as a burial gathering at least two persons and for which it can be demonstrated that the dead were all deposited at the same moment; a collective burial is a burial with at least two individuals, for which it can be proved, on the contrary, that the dead were not deposited on one single occasion. It can be more or less difficult in archaeology to make the distinction between multiple and collective, and materially interpreting the field data is always necessary. Whenever it is not possible to do so, or when it is impossible to decide, one must stick to the expression ???plural burial???.

Finally, the current French terminology regarding the collective burial is perfectly functional, provided a few precautions are taken: 1) the reference analytical space must be perfectly identified; 2) the concepts behind each term, and what they imply practically, must be clearly specified; 3) a social function must never be included in the definitions. With some adjustments and some specifications regarding the use of these definitions, we can totally go on using this terminology, all the more so since it can be transposed from one field to the other, and thus used both in archaeology and ethnology. Moreover, the distinction between multiple burial and collective burial is fundamental, since it enables us to infer a specific mortuary behaviour. Whereas the multiple burials are created to gather people having various relationships with one another, and who necessarily died or were killed on this occasion, the collective burials are always established to gather related people, even though some of them are not dead yet. There is no known exception to this reason in ethnology, so it seems safe to assume that all the archaeological collective burials were created to gather family-related people.

From this point, the conceptual and terminological basis at our disposal is thus perfectly fit to try and go further in our interpretations. In the future, it will be necessary to try and understand why in some societies graves are gathered in cemeteries, whereas in others it is the dead that are gathered in the graves. We will also have to attempt to explain the many varieties of collective burials observed in ethnology, and if possible to match them with those identified in archaeology.


Keywords: collective burial, multiple burial, plural burial, gathering of dead, kinship, terminology.