When classifying burials there are a number of primary categories that they tend to fall into such as inhumation, cremation, bundle burials or mummification. However, the past is not that simple. Burial modes can deviate from the types, or cross the boundaries of a number of them. By placing burials into specific slots, we are simplifying our own analysis, but also reducing variation that may be the most revealing and beneficial towards creating more accurate reconstructions of past behavior. While classifications are an important heuristic device for organizing evidence, they can also be limiting. One example of the problem with strict classifications is a burial from the Phoenician-Punic Necropolis on Mount Sinai, Sardinia discussed by Piga et al. (2010) in an article from the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology.
Excavations at the Mount Sinai necropolis site in Sardinia were conducted between 1981 and 1987. This revealed 75 ground tombs attributed to the Phoenicians and dating between the late 7th and early 5th centuries BCE. The Phoenicians primarily practiced cremation, although inhumation was practiced by a minority- potentially those with relations to earlier Nuragic groups who primarily inhumated. Beginning in the early 5th century, there was a drastic shift from cremation to inhumation as the primary mode of burial. Piga et al. (2010: 145) argue that the shift in burial practice co-occurred with the Punics from Carthago invading Sardinia. Inhumation was the primary burial form for the Punics, and with their military occupation of other areas this trend spread. The invasion began as occupation in 540 BCE, but a number of groups in Sardinia resisted leading to a more destructive invasion in 525 BCE that led to the massacre of numerous Phoenicians.
Of the 75 tombs, 18 date to the period of Punic invasion. Cremation was the primary form of burial for Phoenicians, with popularity peaking between the 9th and 6th centuries BCE. However, these burials dating to the 5th century BCE pose a difficulty in classification. The burials appear to be in correct anatomical order, suggesting that there was no modification of the bones and that the burial is primary. However, on a number of the remains there is dark brown and black staining suggesting that the bones had been burned to some extent. Since burning of the bones to any extent would be pivotal information in interpreting the mortuary trends, Piga et al. (2010) use X-ray diffraction (XRD) and Fourier Transform infrared (FT-IR) techniques in order to test whether the bones were subjected to fire. XRD measures the growth of hydroxyapetite in the bones, which only occurs when subjected to high heat, and FT-IR measures the size of apatite and carbonate bands in bone, which will decrease with high temperatures. 18 individuals were selected who showed signs of the black and brown staining. All of them were subjected to fire between temperatures of 300 and 700 degrees Celsius. This means that every tomb, except one, found at the Mount Sinai necropolis was subjected to some degree of cremation. Given that the bodies remained in anatomical position, it is likely that the fires were brief and meant only to remove the soft tissue. The archaeologists suggest that the semi-cremation may have been done for hygienic reasons, but given the history of cremation it was likely symbolic.
The patterns occurring at the Mount Sinai necropolis are quite intriguing. What the archaeologists propose as ‘semi combustion’ may represent a number of potential things, symbolic or more practical. The problem with the article is that Piga et al. (2010) fail to interpret the remains within the cultural context, nor do they provide any extended discussion of the potential meaning of this burial form. There is a wide variety of meanings and reasons that we can interpret about this practice of semi-cremation, although we are limited in evidence. Given that this is a period of turbulence and military occupation, the Phoenicians may have been under duress- not allowing them to have full time to cremate the individuals. A full cremation can take around 10 hours, but only removing the flesh would take less time. Another possibility is that as part of the military occupation, the Punics required that their burial practices be used. The cremation experienced by these 18 individuals may have been a token cremation to appease both the Phoenicians and the invaders. A third possibility is that with turbulence the Phoenicians went back to their own roots and began having less fully cremated burials to connect themselves with their Nuragic roots. Partial burnings in Rome also occurred, but these were either accidents due to weather or improper pyres, or deliberate as a way to disgrace the dead (Noy 2000).
Without knowing the full range of archaeological evidence from the site, such as the associated grave goods and spatial distribution, it is difficult to formulate an interpretation. This assemblage is unique in that it appears to be transitory between inhumation and cremation, and therefore is important to not only our understanding of Phoenician funerary rituals but also in interpreting mortuary sites in general.
If anyone knows of other partial burnings, I would love to know about them!
Piga, G., Guirguis, M., Bartoloni, P., Malgosa, A., & Enzo, S. (2008). A funerary rite study of the Phoenician-Punic necropolis of Mount Sirai (Sardinia, Italy) International Journal of Osteoarchaeology DOI: 10.1002/oa.1012
Noy, D. (2009). ‘Half-burnt on an Emergency Pyre‘: Roman Cremations which Went Wrong Greece and Rome, 47 (02) DOI: 10.1093/gr/47.2.186