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What is a Necropolis?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A necropolis is literally a city of the dead, when it is translated from the Greek. Necropoleis, as they are known in the plural, can be found all over the world, from Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris to the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor in China, with its famous terracotta army. Many people like to visit necropoleis, and they are of particular interest to archaeologists and historians, who use the sites to learn more about ancient cultures.

As a general rule, the term “necropolis” is used specifically to refer to a large burial site which was utilized in antiquity, excluding large modern cemeteries. However, it is technically appropriate to refer to any large cemetery and burial complex as a necropolis, especially in the case of cemeteries which include chapels, facilities for handling the dead, and complex winding pathways and roads which reach an assortment of grave sites, ranging from simple burials to elaborate mausoleums.

Classical necropoleis included temple complexes and elaborate tombs for housing the dead. Many were dedicated to the use of high ranking members of society and royalty, with commoners being buried elsewhere. Many ancient cultures also had a tradition of burying their dead with objects they might need in the afterlife, so an ancient necropolis can house a wide variety of fascinating items, including textiles, jewelry, methods of transportation, and a variety of other grave goods.

In some cases, a necropolis makes itself readily evident, as in the case of the Great Pyramids at Giza, which tower over the surrounding landscape, making them easy to spot. Others have been more modest, or they have been obscured by time, as is the case with the Valley of the Kings, another notable Egyptian grave site. When a necropolis is obscured by sands, mud, and other debris, it can be a real find for archaeologists, as it may have been protected from looting or vandalism.

Working in necropoleis is not without controversy. While people recognize the value of studying archaeological artifacts, some people feel that disturbing the dead is ethically questionable. While modern archaeologists are extremely respectful, historically people have used archaeological digs to conceal widespread looting and sale of artifacts and human remains, making some governments leery of opening cultural sites to the outside world. Many legends of fearsome curses and other retributions for disturbing the dead have become attached to famous necropoleis around the world.

CulturalWorld.org is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

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

Discussion Comments
By WaterHopper — On Mar 16, 2011

@cmsmith10- Yes, the United States actually has two necopoleis. One is Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. There are more than 60,000 American soldiers are buried there. In addition, dependents of military personnel can also be buried there.

The second necropolis in the United States is Colma, California. It is located in San Mateo County. Colma was founded as a necropolis in 1924. It is said that cemeteries take up 73% of the town’s land. There are actually 17 “human” cemeteries and 1 pet cemetery. The dead outnumber the living by several thousands to one. This has led to the town’s motto: “It’s great to be alive in Colma”.

By cmsmith10 — On Mar 15, 2011

This seemed a little creepy but very interesting. I had honestly never heard of a necropolis. Are there any in the United States?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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