Maral Schumann, M.A.

Project title: Handling the Dead Body: Burial custom and religious ceremonies in Pre-Islamic Persia

Supervisors: Univ.-Prof. Dr. Alexander Pruß, Univ.-Prof. Dr. Johannes Pahlitzsch


In the Pre-Islamic Persian Empires (from the Achaemenids to the Sassanids), a wide variety of cultural influences and impacts can be observed. These are due to the existence of cosmopolitan communities and close relationships with neighbouring countries and allies.
The Persians maintained amicable relationship with their neighbours both at the time of conflicts and in peace. Trading with neighbours, especially those in east, can be traced to as far as China. This was mainly achieved thanks to the important trade routes such as the Silk Road, especially during the Sasanian Empire. In addition to the trading and merchandising, other aspects of relationships such as knowledge, art, culture, traditions and religions also traveled along this route.

Despite the diversity of the communities and the differences in their culture, religion and traditions within the Empire, the central rules were acknowledged and accepted by all parties. The state religion officially practiced by the Sassanid Empire was Zoroastrianism. Different branches of religions were adopted over time, the same applied to the regionally deviant religious ceremonies and burial commemorations.
The essential element of the Zoroastrian mortuary rite is a secondary burial. In this religion the natural elements, water, fire and earth should not be contaminated by the dead body. Therefore, the dead body should be defleshed by carrion birds and animals in the first step and then buried secondarily. However, the subsequent treatment of the defleshed bones (secondary burial) has also diversified over time and over various regions.

The main source categories (archaeological evidence, pictorial representations and text sources) are to be considered multidisciplinarily. The aim is to develop a new, comprehensive view, which evaluates the multitude of sources in context. This creates a temporal, regional and cultural categorization for the different ways of handling the dead body within a superior religion with a differentiated expression. The knowledge gained in this process should be combined and supplemented with written records, which report such events secondarily in order to determine the development process and reformation steps. In this way, it would be possible to identify and reconstruct sites or locations, where such ceremonies took place.