"Through the Valley of Shadows" maps burial sites, rituals from Neolithic to early Middle Ages

Photo: www.muzeumprahy.cz

Anyone interested in archaeology is likely to be attracted to a new exhibition just opening at the Prague City Museum titled "Through the Valley of Shadows". The exhibit - which took a year to prepare - features samples of a number of Prague burial sites dating from as far back as the Stone Age to the early Middle Ages. It shows how ancient cultures - German, Celtic, and Slavic - dealt with death in practical as well as symbolic terms.

Almost anyone who visits Prague City Museum's new exhibition "Through the Valley of Shadows" is likely to feel at least somewhat humbled, given that the exhibition deals with one of humankind's most important rituals: burial. Organisers set out to show how the burial rite was approached over a period of roughly 7,000 years - from the Stone Age to the early Middle Ages. Prague of course has many sites under excavation - with a number of notable finds in recent years - but organisers felt that now was a good time for a larger exhibit. As of Wednesday visitors will be able to view reconstructions of ancient graves - chronologically depicting burial methods as they evolved. Archaeologist Michal Lutovsky describes the practice as it was up to the Bronze Age.

"We'll never be able to know some things for certain - some symbolic meanings - but from the start of the Neolithic up until around the 1,800 years BC, individuals were traditionally buried in the foetal position. The reason 'why' is open to interpretation: some think that it echoed the original position in the womb. In other cases, there may have been other reasons. Bodies were sometimes tied into position, indicating something else: a possible fear of the deceased's return. People had some reason to fear the deceased might come back."

Common among the Prague burial sites was the inclusion of ceramic vessels once containing food and drink, meant to be consumed by the departed on their journey to the next world. Later, jewellery and iron items were included, signifying status and wealth.

Then, burial rites themselves changed: cremation was common at various periods, while Christianity revived burial with corpses lying extended and flat: the show even features samples of the oldest stones used to mark individual graves, as well as a series of paintings by Libor Balak aiming to bring the past to life. Prague Museum's Miroslava Smolikova stresses that ultimately the aim of the museum's latest exhibit is to try and show the public not only how our ancestors died but also how they lived.

"In this exhibition we want to point out that people in the distant past had different ties to death. Today we try not to face it and push it aside, but their rituals were extensive, and as a result they treated it more as an integral part of life. And consequently we think they were less afraid."

"Through the Valley of Shadows" continues at the Prague City Museum until February 2007.