The Challenge of Assessing Co-Occurrence of Cremation and Inhumation

For my SAA presentation, I discussed the challenge of assessing co-occurrence of cremation and inhumation.  Co-occurrence of burial forms is thought of as a unique type of mortuary program. Reductionist interpretations of post-mortem processes in the past condense mortuary patterns to singular types, with co-occurrence as transitional or an outlier. In addition to this, cremation is often understated in site reports, further lending to misconceptions over the frequency of overlapping burial forms. However, co-occurrence of burial forms occurs in numerous societies, including modern Western ones. My presentation addresses specifically the overlapping practices of cremation, the purposeful burning of the corpse of the deceased, and inhumation, burial of the dead without treatment. Traditional interpretations of the two practices treat them as separate burial programs rather than choices on a continuum of possible practices, which often leads to assessing them at different interpretive levels that do not allow for direct comparison.

The work that summarizes mortuary trends and best exemplifies the problematic treatment of co-occurrence is V. Gordon Childe’s (1945) Directional Changes in Funerary Practices During 50,000 Years. Childe discusses funerary customs as as singular methods for burial for each time period, with overlap and co-occurrence due to transitional periods of fashionable competition. Deviations from these singular trends are described as “curious exceptions” or “extremely complicated”. The existence of two practices doesn’t come under scrutiny except to note a rise in cremation during the Iron Age and Roman Empire as aberrant trends.

While mortuary archaeology plays an important role in developing interpretations of past societies, it wasn’t until the 1970’s that the theory behind it was more strongly developed. Early works by Binford (1971), Saxe (1970), Goldstein (1981), Tainter (1978) and Brown (1971) showed the utility of cemeteries and mortuary sites in determining social structures. The work of Hertz (1960), Van Gennep (1909), Bourdieu (1977) and Goodenough (1965) introduced anthropological concepts that shaped our interpretations of funerary rituals, relationships to identity and how these reflect social and political structures. Critiques such as Braun (1982) within the processualist program revealed problems with the assumed direct correlation between cemetery structure and social system. The post-processualism of Hodder (1982) and Cannon (1989) began to include questions of symbolism, ideology and agency. Contemporary studies of mortuary sites now take an approach, which incorporates multiple lines of evidence from the society as a whole, assesses the individual skeletons as part of the archaeological material, takes a diachronic and contextual approach, and looks for the symbolic meaning underlying patterns. While theory has greatly progressed, there are still deficiencies in the way that we interpret and discuss mortuary sites, primarily that our theory is most appropriate when interpreting inhumation and secondary burial.

It is only within the past two decades that cremation has begun to warrant the same amount of study and attention as inhumation. The lack of engagement with cremation is attributed to the archaeologically poor remains that are recovered and misconceptions regarding the amount of information that can be inferred from them. Modern cremations are conducted in high-powered ovens that reduce the body to bone over a short period of time, and industrial blenders reduce the burned remains into the clean ashes that modern populations expect (Kim 2009). The remains of cremated bone are less fragmented when they are not subjected to modern techniques, and can reveal important information on age, sex and pathology (McKinley 2000). Regardless of the difficulty of analysis, cremation requires our attention as it represents one of the major forms of burial throughout history, in some periods it is the sole method of disposal, the bones are more resistant to taphonomic change and therefore have better preservation, and much can be learned about the funeral process (Mays 1998:216). Numerous studies have examined the changes in bone composition and color with differential exposure to heat, changes in patterns of color based on presence of multiple individuals or body position, and archaeobotanical studies can reveal the type of wood being used (Shipman et al. 1984, McKinley 2000, Kreuz 2000). Cremation represents one of the major forms of disposal throughout history both alone and in conjunction with inhumation; therefore they require our engagement and study. Williams (2008) has argued for the creation of an ‘archaeology of cremation’, which focuses on a number of themes and explores the unique variables associated with this burial form. Overcoming the misconceptions that prevent the study of cremation involves recognition of the range and wealth of evidence that they can provide “but also moving beyond the bones to recognize the rich evidence provided by the range of artifacts, contexts, monuments and landscapes associated with cremated remains in the archaeological record” (Williams 2008: 240). While Williams’ call for a cremation specific approach is much needed, the theory and method needs to be able to be used in conjunction with other forms of burial.

There are a number of challenges faced by archaeologists when assessing co-occurrence of cremation and inhumation as burial forms. The first is that mortuary theory does not apply well to multiple types of burial form. This is due to the fact that we focus on different interpretive and evidentiary levels for inhumation and cremation burial. Inhumations are most frequently studied in their final burial position, with interpretation paid to the spatial location and associated grave goods. However, the focus on cremations is the funeral process since the final deposit is not thought to contain enough information. While cremations inherently reveal more about the process of the funeral due to the bones bearing evidence of pyre construction and burning temperatures, inhumations may be just as informative if we are prepared to look for the evidence. In Brown’s (1979) analysis of charnel houses and chamber tombs, he assesses not only the construction of the mortuary structures but also the effort expended in preparation of the body in these. He looks beyond the final burial and grave goods, assessing the entire funerary process. When we analyze the two practices together there is propensity to focus on the final archaeological deposit or the funeral process, but both need to be considered.             A second interpretive problem is that cremation is primarily seen as being transformative, releasing ancestors and creating new identities, or destructive, removing identities. There is a strong focus on the symbolic meanings of the act. Williams (2008:240) argues that while the analysis of cremation remains is more difficult “this perspective denies the very significance of cremation as transformation, a ritual sequence of value for study in its own fight rather than as merely a ‘formation process’”. Acknowledgement of the strong symbolic associations of fire is important, but requires a similar level of interpretation of inhumation when the two are co-occurring. Inhumation is often less theorized and usually doesn’t warrant the same symbolic understanding. This is primarily attributed to the fact that we interpret inhumation as being the ‘normal’ form of burial, with symbolic meaning required for any form that deviates from this. While similar discussions of symbol and meaning are required, it would be reductionist to assume that cremation, as proposed by Hertz (1909) was simply an expedient method of reducing a body to bones. Rather, it would be more appropriate to warrant the same level of attention given to the symbolism of cremation to that of inhumation as argued by Williams (In Press). The meaning and perception of burial forms is more important than the form itself.

Third, the meaning behind the burial forms is drastically different based on historical or cultural context. It is important to look at motivations and choices of the culture within their context, not just at the changing forms and materials (Williams 2006). We must also be careful not to place our modern perceptions onto the past. Within modern societies there is open choice, with some restrictions depending on religion, between the two burial forms, with cremation representing a cheaper option. However, in past societies where cremation ovens didn’t exist, this form would be more expensive and used primarily for the elites (McKinley 2008). One of the major arguments for changing to cremation in the late 19th century was that it was a cheaper option both in space and in cost of burial. However, McKinley (2008) notes that we need to take time and effort into account. Construction and maintenance of the funerary pyre would have been an intensive task, and grave goods that reveal status may have been burned with the body. Even ignoring ideological connections and the spectacle created by fire, the task itself was not ‘cheap’ in ancient societies. Perception of fire has also changed. While the modern view of fire is primarily of it as a destructive force, it may have been potentially transformative in past societies. An example is the correlation of the rise of metallurgy and the increasing practice of cremation. Bruck (2009:17) argues that Bronze Age Britain culture may have associated the fragmentation and reincorporation of metal to create new tools with the cremation of individuals to create social ties. It is important to place burial forms within their broader context, looking at the changes in perceptions and ideologies rather than focusing on variables and form (Bradley 1998).

Finally, the incidence of co-occurrence is vastly underestimated due to the historical lack of attention paid to cremated remains. While site reports have become more thorough in their investigations, cremation remains are often still relegated to appendices or mentioned in passing. Even our texts reduce the study of cremation to a minor section. For example, Buikstra and Ubelaker’s (1994) book on the standards for skeletal analysis contains forms for analysis but lacks any details on how to conduct a study. Larsen’s (1997) Bioarchaeology, does not even mention cremation and how this would factor into the analysis of human remains. For numerous sites, the cremation burials have yet to be analyzed even though interpretations of the site have already been drawn.

2 responses to “The Challenge of Assessing Co-Occurrence of Cremation and Inhumation

  1. Hey ! I’m doing a PHD about a greek necropolis in Sicily and I would be very interested in reading the article you cite as “McKinley 2008” : could you give me the precise reference please ???

    • It is Chapter 10 from the “Analysis of Burned Human Remains”, titled “Heat of the Pyre: Efficiency of Oxidation in Romano-British Cremations- Did it really matter?”

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