Cremation: A Multidisciplinary Approach

Cremation as a burial practice and an area of study within mortuary archaeology, primarily due to the stages required for cremation and the change in the skeletal materials. Cremation is a multi stage act that can potentially involve a number of sites. First, the body must be prepared for cremation, whether this involves special funerary clothing, religious/ritual rites, or removal of clothing. Some individuals may have their flesh removed prior to burning, and some are burned in the flesh. Determination of this is difficult, but burning patterns can be used to discern the state of the body to a certain extent (Binford 1972). Second, a pyre or crematory for the burning is constructed. Some sites, such as the Woodland site of Perrins Ledge in Illinois consist of circles of stone, while other sites in the states such as those from the Late Archaic period consist of red maple or white pine pyres (Goldstein and Meyers 2011). Once the body is cremated, it may either be left in situ like the remains from Perrins Ledge, or it may be transported to a final burial site within a larger cemetery as are most cremations. These acts create different activity locations within the archaeological record that need to be discovered in order to understand the entire process.

The second important thing to note about cremation is that the act of burning a body not only changes the form of the individual, but it often changes the relationship between the living and the dead. The change from body to ash can be a way of reasserting a community identity, returning the body to the earth, releasing the soul of the individual, or many other explanations. The context of the ashes can reveal the meaning behind cremation. Inclusion of ashes within effigy mounds in the Late Woodland period in the American Mid-West may be a way of incorporating ancestors into ritual spaces. The combination of cemeteries with both cremation and inhumation may be a sign of differential status, or personal choice (Goldstein and Meyers 2011).

In order to understand why an individual was cremated, archaeologists need to have as many details about the cremation and its broader context as possible. Taking a multidisciplinry approach that combines archaeological data and analysis of the remains, with modern forensics and ethnographic/ethnohistoric information is pivotal. This is especially important when cremation is not a normal practice at the site under investigation.

An excavation in 2005 from Teouma, Vanuatu in the Pacific Islands revealed a unique cremation burial. The cremation deposit was found within a larger funerary context that contained a number of different types of burials. The burial dates to the Lapita period, approximately 2850 years before present. This burial is unique not only for the context it was found within, but also the culture in general. In order to make sense of this funerary behavior in the larger mortuary context, Scott and colleagues (2010) use a combination of archaeological and contemporary forensics techniques to further investigate the cremation.

At the Lapita site, there were 48 burials containing 71 individuals found. The types of interment within the site were highly varied, including: primary inhumation, secondary burials, pots containing human remains, with individuals lying in every position possible. The common factor between all of these was that there was some type of manipulation of the body in all, consisting of removal of bones or movement of skeletal elements after desiccation.  The cremation is unique, and burning was not done in situ- meaning the burning took place at a separate location. The individual is a possible adult female, due to warping from burning the sex can only be tentative. A number of skeletal elements are missing, but it is unknown whether this is a sign of haste in burial, removal for curation or memorialization, or they were lost in transportation. There is no sign of cannibalism or cut marks.

Scott et al. 2010

Using ethnography to better understand the culture shows that there is a history of variability in mortuary practices within the Pacific Islands, although evidence of cremation has been fairly limited. One ethnographic story tells of a man who was burned for being guilty of sorcery, and there is evidence that the earlier forms of burial on the island more routinely included cremation. Using forensics techniques to discern meaning and behavior, Scott et al. (2010) argue that there are three possible scenarios. First, the individual was accidentally burned as the cause of death or after death. However this is highly unlikely given that large fires are rare, and comparison of house fire victims shows a different pattern of burning. Second, cannibalism is possible although there is a lack of bite or knife marks on the individual, and their burials within the cemetery context doesn’t support a conclusion that they were food. Third, is purposeful cremation as a form of burial. Burning pattern is consistent with a fleshed body, the absence of cranial fragments is consistent with the removal of crania seen in the inhumations, and the burial was found centrally located within the other community burials. Further analysis of other cemeteries from the region need to be examined to see if maybe cremation isn’t unique, but rather we are seeing a sampling bias.

Works Cited

Binford. 1972. An analysis of cremation from three Michigan sites. In Archaeological Perspective. Seminar Press: NY.

Goldstein and Meyers. 2011. Cremation in the Pre-Contact Eastern United States. Presentation at Society for American Archaeology 2011 Conference. Minneapolis.

Scott et al. 2010. Identification of the first reported Lapita cremation in the Pacific Islands using archaeological, forensic and contemporary burning evidence. In Journal of Archaeological Science 37 (2010) 901–909

2 responses to “Cremation: A Multidisciplinary Approach

  1. We definitely need more research on cremation in the past. I looked into the literature a bit for my 2005 master’s thesis (on the bioarch of the Roman world), and I was surprised at just how variable the bioarchaeological record of cremations is, particularly in ancient Rome. Some of these cremations could be sexed/aged, and some could even have chemical analyses done on them (owing to incomplete incineration), but no one’s studying them. Which is a shame because cremation was quite popular for centuries in Rome, and there are numerous excavated cremations languishing in warehouses.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I agree that cremation is often misunderstood and way understudied. I would love to hear about these ‘languishing’ cremations. Sounds like someone should do a dissertation on that…

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