Cremation Sites in the Roman Empire

Cremation was one of the primary forms of burial for Roman period until the rise of Christianity in the 3rd century CE. However, within archaeology, cremations have been understudied in comparison to inhumation. It cannot be assumed that evidence gleaned from inhumation is representative of the entire population (Killgrove 2005). According to Cicero in his De Legibus which was written at the end of the Roman Republic, cremating one’s remains was popular after the death of Sulla, and inhumation was considered primitive because it left the body intact, which meant it could potentially be disturbed. Pliny the Elder in his Natural History, dating to 60 CE, noted the popularity of cremation among the elite, which is evidence that cremation is more than an alternative form of burial and could reveal missing information on social processes in this time period.

Further, beyond demographic and pathological profiles of the individuals, important information regarding the funerary rites and rituals, as well as pyre technology, can be gained (McKinley 2000). This is the aspect that makes cremation so unique as a burial practice. Unlike inhumation or other secondary burial practices, cremation has a clearly defined area of cremation and one of burial. These differing activities centers make the funeral more of a process than inhumation. Before we begin our discussion, it is important to note that the term cremation refers to the process of reducing a body to more basic elements of bone and gas. Cremation does not refer to the human remains, rather the term ‘human cremated remains’ is used by the funeral industry or the term ‘cremains’ which is employed by forensics and bioarchaeologists.

Rottoli and Castiglioni 2010

There are two primary ways of cremation during the Roman Empire: ustrinum or bustum. The ustrinum is a funerary construction used for incinerating the deceased. This structure consisted of the funeral pyre, which was lit in order to burn the body. Once complete, the remains, either portions or complete, would be collected and placed into a cinerarium- the place or object which received the ashes, most traditionally an urn or amphorae. The bustum was a funeral pyre and structure in which the body would be burnt and remains kept. The bustum functions as both a cinerarium and ustrinum. By looking at the archaeology of these two features, we can create a more accurate understanding of funerary practices of cremation.

Ustrinum were either specially made for important individuals, or, more commonly, were located in the cemetery for reuse. The ustrinum from Encosta de Sant’Ana, a Roman cemetery in Portugal, is an example of a typical reusable cremation site that would be found in a cemetery (Angelucci 2008). They excavated one intact ustrinum. Based on this, they were able to discuss the ‘life-course’ of the feature. First, a depression was made in the soil. Second, an outer ring, made using a mudbrick technique, was placed around the rim of the depression. Upon this mudbrick wall, the pyre would have been built up. There were a number of reddened layers of soil which suggest multiple cremations with temperatures reaching around 600 degrees celsius. Mudbrick fragments found within the depression suggest that the ustrinum had been reworked at least once. Finally, the high presence of a variety of paleobotanical remains suggests that either the ustrinum was left open between cremations or that plants were placed with the bodies during cremation. When the individual was cremated, the remains were removed and placed into an urn which was buried in the ground. Although at this site it was not a complete removal, a number of bone fragments were found in different layers of the ustrinum.

Like the ustrinum, the construction of the bustum involved creating a depression in the ground and the construction of a pyre over it. The difference is that when the cremation was complete, the remains would not be removed, nor would the cremation site be used again. Bustum were a single use crematory that also served as the burial. In bustum burials there is a higher percentage of paleobotanical remains of plants, faunal remains and the wood used as fuel. This is important evidence for determining the types of wood used, and whether there were any offerings of food made to the deceased.

Roman Cremation: New York Public Library

Having this detailed information on the botanical, faunal and fuel is important because it can reveal the funerary rituals around the cremation and burial. Rottoli and Castiglioni (2010) examined botanical remains from Roman cremations in Northern Italy. They found a high percentage of fruit and baked goods like breads or cakes, suggesting that food offerings were important for the Romans during funerary rituals. Ceramics found throughout Roman Britain that were recovered from ustrinum or bustum were associated with plant and animal remains. A study of ceramics by Polfer (2000) showed that unburt pottery associated with ustrinum or bustum contained remains of liquids like wine, whereas burnt ceramics usually contained remains of food. This suggests differences in how ceramics are used in the overall funerary ritual.

Studying mortuary archaeology is more than just studying human remains. Comparing the context of the cremation site and the artifacts within it is extremely important for understanding the funerary rituals of the past. When we add this evidence to the social and historical knowledge of the period, we are able to add to the current body of knowledge about behavior and social processes.

Works Cited
ANGELUCCI, D. (2008). Geoarchaeological insights from a Roman age incineration feature (ustrinum) at Enconsta de Sant’Ana (Lisbon, Portugal) Journal of Archaeological Science, 35 (9), 2624-2633 DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2008.04.020

Mauro Rottoli and Elisabetta Castiglioni (2010). Plant offerings from Roman cremations in northern Italy: a review VEGETATION HISTORY AND ARCHAEOBOTANY, 20 (5), 495-506

McKinley, Jacqueline 2000. Phoenix rising: aspects of cremation in Roman Britain. In Pearce J, Millet M, Struck M, eds. Pp. 38-44. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Killgrove, Kristina 2005. Bioarchaeology in the Roman World. Dissertation. Department of Classics. University of North Carolina.

3 responses to “Cremation Sites in the Roman Empire

  1. It is, of course, important to note that although cremation was the “preferred” burial type for centuries, it is an expensive rite, particularly in comparison to simple inhumation in a pit (or slightly more fancy burials in amphorae or a cappuccina). Cremations during the height of the Empire, then, were likely of well-to-do people, as the commoners were inhuming (and the rise of Christianity also started with the commoners until Constantine got involved). At any rate, Roman cremations are woefully under-studied, which is especially surprising since they were the burials of the wealthy. You should look into the work of Marshall Becker, who has published on several cremations from ancient Italy.

    • Thanks for the comment Kristina. I also noticed in my research that there seems to be a correlation of bustum being for more wealthy individuals and ustrinum for less wealthy ones. However there is indeed a lack of information about cremation practices during this time period, even though there seems to be a plethora of remains and sites which could be used for evidence!

  2. Pingback: Contagions Round-up 16: Pestilence and Burials « Contagions·

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