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What are Grave Goods?

Grave goods are items buried alongside individuals, often reflecting their status, beliefs, or personal stories. These artifacts, ranging from jewelry to weapons, serve as a poignant bridge to past cultures, offering insights into ancient customs and the afterlife's perceived needs. How might these treasures redefine our understanding of history? Join us as we uncover the secrets of the departed.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Grave goods are objects which are buried or cremated with a body. Many cultures have traditions of leaving grave goods, from the modern United States, where mementos are buried with the dead, to Ancient Egypt, where high-ranking people were buried with lavish assortment of objects. Beliefs about the function of grave goods vary, depending on time and culture.

The practice of including grave goods with burial is ancient. Some hominid burials include crude objects, indicating that even at earlier stages of evolution, death was an important experience. The objects in ancient burials include things like textiles, baskets, bowls, and jewelry; organic materials like food may have been included at the time of burial as well.

Grave goods are objects buried with a deceased person.
Grave goods are objects buried with a deceased person.

In many ancient societies, the dead were buried with objects which they could use in the afterlife. The Vikings and the Egyptians both had lavish funeral practices in which the dead were buried with food, servants, tools, toys, pets, working animals, garments, jewelry, and a wide assortment of other items, and it was believed that people needed to be buried with everything they might need in the afterlife. This tradition endures in many cultures; in parts of Asia, for example, people are cremated with special bank notes or credit cards which can be spent in the afterlife.

Vast treasures were often buried with the dead who were entombed in the Giza Pyramid Complex.
Vast treasures were often buried with the dead who were entombed in the Giza Pyramid Complex.

Grave goods are also left as offerings to the dead, or offerings to the gods. In Ancient Greece, for example, people were buried with two coins to pay death's ferryman, and in other cultures, the dead have been buried with money to pay death himself. In this sense, the objects are considered to be a type of votive deposit, meaning that they are left in a sanctified location for a specific ritual purpose.

Grave goods were often buried alongside ancient Egyptian royalty.
Grave goods were often buried alongside ancient Egyptian royalty.

Because grave goods often include items of immense value, looting of graves has been a common problem throughout human history. Many tombs have been looted for the jewelry and other valuable goods they contain, and some of these looted objects have found their way into museums or private collections. Finding a grave which has not been looted is extremely unusual, and a cause for celebration among archaeologists.

There is some dispute as to what to do with items unearthed at grave sites. Some people believe that such items should be restored, studied, and displayed, while others feel that graves should be left undisturbed as a mark of respect for the dead. This problem was greatly exacerbated by widespread archaeological practices in the 19th century, when numerous priceless items were removed from colonial subjects and exported; most of these items have yet to be returned to their nations of origin.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are grave goods and why were they included in burials?

Grave goods are items placed in a burial alongside the deceased, often reflecting the status, beliefs, or occupation of the individual. They were included in burials for various reasons, such as to provide the deceased with comfort in the afterlife, to serve as offerings to deities, or to signify the social status or profession of the individual. In some cultures, grave goods were believed to be essential for the deceased to navigate the afterlife successfully.

Can the presence of grave goods help archaeologists understand ancient cultures?

Yes, the presence of grave goods can provide archaeologists with invaluable insights into ancient cultures. These artifacts can reveal information about the social hierarchy, trade relations, daily life, religious beliefs, and technological advancements of a society. By analyzing grave goods, archaeologists can piece together aspects of the deceased's identity and the cultural practices of the time, offering a window into the past.

What types of items are commonly found as grave goods?

Common items found as grave goods include jewelry, weapons, pottery, tools, and personal belongings. The nature of these items can vary widely depending on the culture and time period. For example, in ancient Egypt, grave goods could range from everyday items like combs and food to elaborate treasures like gold masks and chariots, intended to assist the pharaohs in their journey to the afterlife.

How do grave goods differ across various cultures and time periods?

Grave goods differ significantly across cultures and time periods, reflecting the diverse beliefs and customs surrounding death and the afterlife. For instance, Viking burials might include weapons and ships, symbolizing the warrior's journey to Valhalla, while Chinese tombs from certain dynasties might contain terracotta soldiers or miniature representations of houses and servants. These variations highlight the unique ways in which societies honor their dead and their distinct conceptions of life after death.

Have modern attitudes towards grave goods changed compared to ancient practices?

Modern attitudes towards grave goods have shifted considerably compared to ancient practices. Today, many cultures focus on simpler burial practices, often due to religious beliefs, practical considerations, or legal restrictions. The emphasis is less on material wealth accompanying the deceased and more on memorializing the individual through ceremonies or markers. However, some contemporary practices still include personal items or mementos, maintaining a connection to the tradition of honoring the deceased with grave goods.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a CulturalWorld researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a CulturalWorld researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

anon993936

Is there another one word term for grave goods?

anon242170

Nice site you have here. It has helped me with my project I have to do in social studies.

BigBloom

A common legend among Norse Mythology has to do with ghosts who lived in Viking mounds. These ghosts were particularly dangerous because they were armed warriors, with all the necessary weaponry a warrior could need.

anon128155

My sister slipped her adoptive mother's paddle into her casket, saying nothing to anybody. I guess that's a form of grave goods.

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    • Grave goods are objects buried with a deceased person.
      By: itsxtian
      Grave goods are objects buried with a deceased person.
    • Vast treasures were often buried with the dead who were entombed in the Giza Pyramid Complex.
      By: Hartmut Lerch
      Vast treasures were often buried with the dead who were entombed in the Giza Pyramid Complex.
    • Grave goods were often buried alongside ancient Egyptian royalty.
      By: Tatty
      Grave goods were often buried alongside ancient Egyptian royalty.