When analyzing cremated remains it is important to be aware of the broader burial and not focus so narrowly on the remains themselves if one wants to be able to understand the funeral process. We can learn a lot about the funeral from the bones themselves when they have been burned. The coloring on the remains, the amount of warping and the completeness can reveal fire temperature, how the body was placed on the pyre, whether it was clothed or was burned as dried bone, and if there were any problems with the burning (such as interruption by weather or incomplete incineration). However, often when cremation remains are collected there are macrobotanical or charcoal fragments which can further aid in interpretation by revealing details of the actual pyre construction.
Moskal-del Hoyo (2012) discusses the charcoal remains from Polish cremation necropoli in a new article from the Journal of Archaeological Sciences. She posits that analysis of the wood remains from pyre construction could be revealing about the identities of the individuals and the various necropoli. Analyses of other variables at cremation sites have found that specific types of pottery or objects may be reserved for funerary use, so it is plausible that specific types of wood may be used for religious or symbolic meanings. It may also be a means of differentiating social status, with rare wood being used in the cremation pyres of wealthier individuals. Finally, it may also show a functional use with specific types of wood burning more efficiently than others as seen in the study done by Deforce and Haneca (2011) on cremation charcoal from Roman Gaul pyres.
Three Polish necropoli are examined for Moskal-del Hoyo’s (2012) study. These include necropoli found at Kokotów, Paw1owice and Korytnica. All sites are located in the south of Poland. The Kokotów necropolis was in use between 700 and 400 BCE, Paw1owice was used around 500 to 350 BCE and Korytnica dates from 100 BCE to 100 CE. Charcoal samples from Kokotów and Korytnica were taken from the graves themselves, of which there were 112 at the former and 25 at the latter. At Paw1owice the samples were taken from 26 funeral pyre sites rather than from the 76 pit graves. Charcoal was collected from the grave, pyre site (if located) and from within the urns if they were present. Each piece collected was examined from three angles, transverse, longitudinal tangential and longitudinal radial, using reﬂected light microscopy. Genus and species were determined for most of them, and when possible she identified the area of the tree the sample came from (trunk, branch, twig, shoot, cone and bark).
The results of this analysis showed that there was a variety of wood, bark and pine cones used at each necropolis that corresponds to the diversity of species found in the neighboring forest. This suggests that “there was not a clearly preferred species used for cremation ceremonies”. Moskal-del Hoyo (2012) posits that the collection of wood could be based on availability of wood and least possible effort to gather it. However, it is also possible that this is a consequence of cultural rules permitting only wood from the cemetery area to be used in the cremation. In order to determine this, future study of the broader vegetation of the cultural area would be required. This type of analysis was carried out by Deforce and Haneca (2011), who compared the botanical tree remains of domestic refuse sites with cremation burials. They also found that there was not a significant difference that suggested symbolic or cultural preference in wood selection. Rather, “the selection of fuelwood seems to have been based on its quality as fuel and its availability”.
Both of these studies show the importance of looking at the context of the cremation urn rather than just the bones or container. The information derived from these two studies can help us better understand the motivations and methods behind the funeral process. While this doesn’t necessarily reveal any significant ritual or symbolic information about the individuals or groups being cremated, it does allow us to glimpse into the process. Knowing what parts of the funeral were functional is just as important as knowing which parts were symbolic.
Magdalena Moskal-del Hoyo (2012). The use of wood in funerary pyres: random gathering or special selection of species? Case study of three necropolises from Poland Journal of Archaeological Sciences, 39 (11) DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2012.05.011
Koen Deforce, & Kristof Haneca (2011). Ashes to ashes. Fuelwood selection in Roman cremation rituals in northern Gaul Journal of Archaeological Sciences, 39 (5) DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2011.12.024