The Process of Cremation in Roman France

Via Flickr User Justin Dolske

Via Flickr User Justin Dolske

In general, cremation is a category of cadaver treatment that involves transformation of the body by fire. From there, we recognize a few patterns of cremation burials within the archaeological record. First, the human remains could be buried at the site of the cremation, often known as a bustum burial. The grave site is identified by the remains of the funerary pyre. Second,  the pyre site may be identified on its own with only a few remnants of human bone left. After the fire is complete, and the cadaver reduced to bone, the skeletal remains are often taken out of the cooled ash and placed elsewhere. However, it can be difficult to find all 206 bones, especially because they sometimes crack and fragment. Therefore, pyre sites may have some human bone left in them. Third, the ash and human bones may be placed in separate secondary locations. Finally, the ash and human bones may be placed in the same secondary location. By examining the final burial deposits carefully, one can better understand the path they took from burning to burial.

André, Leahy and Rottier (2013) examine cremation burial practices in Lyons, France during the 2nd century CE. They investigated burial practices at the Tuileries site and necropolis. The necropolis contained 24 funerary structures, including a cremation area, an inhumed sepulchre and 22 secondary cremation structures consisting of different configurations of cremation residues and ossuaries. They investigate a number of these a specific cremation deposit in order to better understand how it was formed.

Map and sections of F6007 (fosse) and F6099 (vase) (graphic statement: C. Argant; drawing: J. Bohny; modified by A. André). via Andre et al. 2013

Map and sections of F6007 (fosse) and F6099 (vase) (graphic statement: C. Argant; drawing: J. Bohny; modified by A. André). via Andre et al. 2013

The area under investigation was found in the Southeast corner of the necropolis and consists of a large depression of cremation residue, and an urn. Based on stratigraphy, the depression was made first, and the urn was interred after. The depression contained a layer of fill, and beneath it was a layer of burned human bone, charcoal, fragmented metal, ceramic shards, as well as animal and plant remains. The urn contained human remains as well as mole remains (likely intrusive), and the opening of the urn had been altered to make the mouth wider. Examination of the weight of the human remains found from both contexts indicates that the depression likely contained multiple individuals, whereas the urn likely contained only a single individual due to the low weight of remains. 

Given the low weight of remains in the urn, and high weight of remains in the depression, André, Leahy and Rottier (2013) argue that it is possible that the urn and depression are related to one another and may potential be bones from the same individual. First, the remains found in the depression consist of more cranial and inferior skeletal remains, whereas the urn contains more superior skeletal remains. Second, refitting (connecting bones like puzzle pieces) was done between the urn and depression, and one conjoin was found, demonstrating that the remains in the depression are from the same individual as the urn.

They hypothesize that an adult individual was first cremated on a pyre with various metal and ceramic artifacts, as well as offerings of food. The individual was burned whole in a hot pyre over a period of time. After the flesh had burned away, and the fire cooled, some of the remains were collected from the site and put into an urn. Next all the remaining bone was collected from the cremation site and deposited into the depression. This was then refilled with clean soil. Finally, a hole was dug into the side of this area and the urn was placed next to the other remains. The mouth of the urn was expanded and two amphorae necks were added to the top of it. These would have shown through the soil and would have allowed the mourners to make offerings following burial. There was no cap to seal the urn’s opening through the amphorae, evidenced by the presence of a mole.

This article is a fascinating look at a single cremation event. By teasing apart the evidence, they are able to reconstruct a series of events related to death and the funeral. Often we focus on the final deposit of the burial, and it can be easy to forget that a burial consists of a string of events from the death, to funeral, to burial, to memorial visits. It is interesting to see this deposit investigated and elaborated to show the broader range of activity surrounding the burial.

Works Cited

ResearchBlogging.orgA. ANDRÉ, R. LEAHY, & S. ROTTIER (2013). Cremated Human Remains Deposited in Two Phases: Evidence from the Necropolis of the Tuileries Site (Lyon, France: 2nd Century AD). International Journal of Osteoarchaeology DOI: 10.1002/oa.2317

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