7. Returning to Clay: Death and the Afterlife

From: Global Clay

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250 7 | returning to clay Death and the Afterlife Beneath this stone lies Catherine Gray, Changed to a lifeless lump of clay; By earth and clay she got her pelf, And now she’s turned to earth herself. Ye weeping friends, let me advise, Abate your tears and dry your eyes; For what avails a flood of tears? Who knows but in a course of years, In some tall pitcher or brown pan, She in her shop may be again. Epitaph on the grave of an earthenware seller at Chester, England1 What happens to us when we die remains one of the great mysteries of human existence. Goods (including pottery, of course) buried with the deceased in prehistoric times are mute evidence of early belief in some sort of afterlife; our species finds it difficult to accept that nothing follows the cessation of earthly life. Belief in an afterlife is one of the cornerstones of most religions, whose dogma tells us that our stay in this world is fleeting and that there’s more to come (for better or worse). Some societies have a preoccupation with death, especially those in which the mortality rate is high, with constant reminders of the strong possibility that one could be next. That possibility existed among people who practiced human sacrifice to appease the gods, such as the Aztecs and Mayans of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. A lidded jar from eighth-century Guatemala illustrates both the Mayan principle of dualism and the transience of human existence by contrasting a full-fleshed face on one half and the inevitable skeletal face on the other (fig. 7.1). Figure 7.1. Mayan “living and dead” head pot, terra-cotta with white and burnished red slip, Guatemala, ca. 700 CE. Photograph © 2017 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts, www.mfa.org. Figure 7.2. Barro negro (black clay) skull made for Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) with open base and holes for a candle inside to shine through, San Bartolo Coyotepec, Oaxaca, Mexico, 1995. Private collection; photograph: author. Returning to Clay | 253 The Mexican festival known as Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) honors spirits of the departed by acknowledging them as still among the living. The holiday , which has pre-Christian roots, was originally observed at the beginning of summer, but was later rescheduled in autumn to coincide with the Roman Catholic Allhallowtide (All Saints’ Eve/Halloween, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day). Some see the celebration as morbid, with its communion in cemeteries with the spirits of departed relatives and friends and its images of skeletons and skulls in sweets and clay that are sold and displayed everywhere (fig. 7.2). Others see it as a healthy respect for death and a belief that the soul lives on to interact with the survivors. Art from the Tomb One way the ancient Greeks memorialized departed loved ones was to deposit a pinax, or votive plaque, with a painted mourning scene, often of terracotta (fig. 7.3), in the burial chamber. The illustrated example of about 520 BCE from the Athens area is typical, showing the deceased on his bier and survivors in mourning posture painted in red slip that turned black in a reduction firing (the “black figure” technique). The chariot race below may have been a reference to the funeral games held in honor of legendary heroes, a reminder that every race has its end, or the artist’s way of saying, “Life goes on for the survivors, so enjoy it while you can.” In ancient Egypt, royal personages often were entombed with a group of “faience” shabtis/ushabtis/shawabtis, funerary figurines that would serve as surrogates to assume tasks the deceased was called upon to perform in the afterlife. Known as “answerers,” their inscriptions assert their readiness to answer the gods’ summons to work. The illustrated examples from the tomb of King Senkamanisken of Nubia, dating to about 630 BCE, have the usual mummy shape but with facial features individualized rather than all created from the same mold (fig. 7.4). On a much grander scale is the now-famous Terracotta Army (fig. 7.5), part of the burial complex of China’s first emperor and unifier, Qin Shi Huang, at Lintong (a suburb of Xi’an), Shaanxi province, discovered in 1974 by farmers digging a well. The three pits containing the army are estimated to house at least 7,000 soldiers and 600 draft and saddled horses, all...