There are many things that can happen to a body between death and burial. A good example of this process is Weekend at Bernie’s. Bernie Lomax is murdered within the first twenty minutes of the movie, but he remains an important character as Richard and Larry feign that he is alive in order to continue to party and prevent their own deaths. The corpse of Bernie is propped up for a party, plays monopoly, is buried in the sand by a child, is re-murdered twice, and even dragged behind a boat (Yes, normal decomposition wouldn’t have allowed this, but a “Coroner’s Report” from Scientific American provides a plausible explanation). However, if we posit that the second movie hadn’t occurred, he may have had a normal burial at a local cemetery following this weekend incident. Perhaps 200 years later, if archaeologists were to excavate the burial, they may have no idea that these remains had undergone this intensive pre-burial activity. Perhaps he would have a number of post-mortem injuries, but other than that with only bones it may be difficult to tell. If a grave marker remained, the archaeologists could have done some historical research into who this Bernie Lomax, dead on June 5, 1989, would have been and maybe even recovered a VHS of the event or newspaper clippings. Although, after 2 centuries, it may just be accepted folklore rather than truth.
When we recover human remains from a site, we often cannot tell much information about what happened between the death of the individual and their burial. If they were cremated or given some other type of primary treatment, we can gain more information than a simple burial- but for the most part we are left with just the final deposit. In Roman times, the wealthy would have extensive funeral processions through the city as a way of displaying their status. The funeral procession would be accompanied by individuals wearing the masks of deceased ancestors, and a eulogy was given for the whole community to hear. Through this the glory of the deceased and their lineage was shared with everyone, it reasserted their role and place in the larger social structure despite the loss of one of their family members. Once at the cemetery, the funeral involved different types of feasting and rituals depending on the stage of the procession. We know these happened through a combination of historical texts, artwork, and archaeological deposits. However, this evidence is rare and it can be difficult to interpret.
A new article by Andre, Leahy and Rottier (2013) discusses the chronology of funeral gestures at a cemetery in Lyon, France. They argue that a cremation is made up of three main stages: the burning of the body on the pyre, the collection and burial of the human remains, and the collection of the residue, including smaller bones, animal remains, metal, glass, wood and anything else leftover from the cremation. These three parts can each be recovered at archaeological sites, and depending on their configuration can be related to one another. Everything can be buried together at one location, the pyre and residue can be buried together, the human remains and residue can be buried separately, or the human remains and residue can be buried together. The first and last configuration allow the most information regarding the process of the funeral to be extracted- we can learn about what they were buried with, how the cremation was done, and where everything ended up. At the site of Tuileries that Andre, Leahy and Rottier (2013) investigate, they have the third configuration, separate burial of each of the sites. However, they propose that a careful examination of the stratigraphy of these deposits may help in the interpretation of the process.
The site of Tuileries contains a 2nd century CE necropolis, which contains 22 cremation features, a cremation pyre site, and a sepulchre. They examine the central south area of the necropolis which contains a deposit of cremation residue and a cinerary urn in close proximity. Stratigraphy shows that the urn was buried after the residue was deposited. The residue deposit contained enough human remains to consist of an entire adult (2250 grams), who was burned around 650 degrees Celsius based on color. It also contains the remains of burned glass, metal, fauna, and ceramics. In the vase was approximately 48 grams of human remains, and it was similar in age and burning to the residue deposit. Comparison of the types of bones found in the two deposits and combined weight suggests that it may be one individual divided between the residue and urn. There was no evidence, such as repeating bony elements, to suggest there were multiple individuals. They were ven able to reconnect a bone from the residue to a bone from the urn.
From this evidence they were able to construct a chronology of treatment. First, the body was cremated on a pyre that included a number of artifacts and offerings. Following the burning, a selection of the remains was placed into an urn and the remains of the entire cremation were deposited south of the pyre site. The urn was altered to allow for libations to be given to the deceased. The urn was then buried soon after with the residue from the pyre. They found that this proposed chronology fit for all the other burials at the site. There were no patterns as to which portions of the skeleton were selected for the urn, rather it was simply a token deposit that could continued to be honored after burial. This changes the interpretation of the broader site. Instead of having 22 separate cremation related structures, it is more likely there are 11 pairs of residue and urn structures.
They conclude “structures considered distinct due to the nature of their deposits, location and/or stratigraphic position may be commonly disassociated, even though they are anthropologically inseparable” (Andre, Leahy and Rottier 2013). This is interesting, and something we as archaeologists should be aware of. Simply because deposits are distinct and separate does not mean they were viewed that way by the individuals who aided in the funerary process. Understanding the process of the burial and treatment of the body is extremely important- and we need to be aware of the range of possibilities.
André, A., Leahy, R., & Rottier, S. (2013). Cremated Human Remains Deposited in Two Phases: Evidence from the Necropolis of the Tuileries Site (Lyon, France: 2nd Century AD) International Journal of Osteoarchaeology DOI: 10.1002/oa.2317