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Abstract and Keywords

The complex and multifaceted ancient mortuary rite of cremation had the potential to create various forms of archaeological evidence. Acceptance of the potential presence of different individual components of the rite, their recognition, and study are central to our further understanding of the inter- and intra-site/period similarities and variations inherent in or attendant on this mortuary practice. Vital to this process are appropriate excavation methods and accurate recording of deposits, an understanding of the archaeological components which may be encountered within them, and clear, consistent (but not proscriptive) use of descriptive and interpretative terminology. Comprehension of the cremation process and factors potentially affecting pyre cremation is fundamental to interpretation. Specialist analysis of the individual archaeological components within such deposits has to consider the context from which they derived. A holistic approach, involving the exchange of information between different specialists, will assist in a better analysis of the formation process of the deposits and the broader aspects of the mortuary rite.

Keywords: cremation, formation processes, mortuary rite, pyre site, cremation burial, pyre debris, oxidation


The ancient mortuary rite of cremation was a complex and multifaceted mode of disposal of the dead. It was expensive in terms of (at least) time and effort, and had the potential to create a variety of deposit and feature types for which we may recover archaeological evidence. Only by recording and analysing as many of the individual components of the rite as possible can we aspire to fulfil the wider objectives of illustrating temporal and geographic similarities and variations inherent or attendant on the mortuary practice, and understanding their meaning.

The main section of this chapter presents the archaeological components frequently encountered in cremation-related deposits, the form and probable nature of those deposits, and the features in which they may be found. The descriptive and interpretive terminology used in reference to such deposits is vital to understanding the potential range and nature of what may be encountered; it can also have a subliminal effect on the method of excavation employed. Various types of deposit may look similar and share the same components, and it is often the differing quantities and relative distribution of each which holds the key to the process of their formation and their interpretation. Appropriate excavation methods and accurate recording are essential to interpretation and a comprehensive understanding of the rite, as is the recovery of as much as possible of the surviving material. Advised excavation and post-excavation procedures will be outlined to assist appropriate field recovery and recording.

Analysis of cremated remains by an osteologist is inextricably linked with the context of origin. The form and nature of the archaeological deposit will affect the condition of the cremated bone and both data sets (collected in the field and the laboratory) are vital in interpretation of the type of deposit represented. Analysis of cremated remains requires an understanding of the cremation process. Modern crematoria offer the most (p. 148) effective and efficient environment in which cremation is undertaken, but it is also important to consider those factors which may have influenced the equally sophisticated but potentially less controllable environment of an open pyre. Both situations will be briefly outlined.

Whilst the specialist aims to recover the basic osteological data pertaining to the cremated individual (demographic and pathological data, together with unavoidably limited metric data), they also seek to recover information relevant to the technology and rites of cremation. The systematic recording of data from individual deposits enables subsequent analysis to detect variations and similarities in the rite, which may be influenced by the age or sex of the individual, and cultural, temporal, or geographic factors. The final section of this chapter will consider various potential aspects of this most fascinating and as yet still under-explored area of cremation studies.

Many of the examples used in the chapter derive from my own first-hand experience in the field and on the bench-top (‘laboratory’ being a slightly too clinical word for the environment in which osteoarchaeogists in commercial archaeology commonly work). This has given me detailed insights into both the archaeological contexts of the material and the material itself at all stages from the soil to the storage shelf. As all my osteological work on cremated remains has been with material excavated from various parts of the British Isles (predominantly England), the examples are, inevitably, focused on the UK. Whilst there are obviously some differences—as well as many similarities—in deposit types and formation processes in different locations, the basic archaeological components and questions asked of the material are generic. Consequently, much of what is presented here should pertain to the many cremation-related deposits encountered throughout the archaeological world. Similarities in approach, both in excavation procedures and in recording and analysis, will assist in making the all-important temporal and geographical comparisons between the archaeological manifestations of the cremation rite.

Cremation-Related Features and Deposits: Components, Form, and Nature

As a first step in the study of cremation it is imperative to recognize that there are a variety of deposit types and features which may be associated with the rite. This being so, the terminology used to describe and interpret what we see in excavation is vital. Words affect our perception and our understanding, and in archaeology this can influence the way we recover and record data, which in turn can have a major impact on how that data can later be analysed and interpreted. It is still very common (at least in the UK) for any deposit of cremated bone to be described as ‘a cremation’, by which those using the term generally mean ‘the remains of a cremation burial’. Not only is this an interpretation (subjective) rather than a description (objective) of the deposit—important distinctions in archaeological recording—but ‘a cremation’ is a burning pyre, the primary act of cremation itself, and is not synonymous with the secondary act of burial. There are some Asian cultures in which the cremation itself represents a secondary part of the mortuary rite, either by necessity (allowing time to (p. 149) accumulate the necessary wealth to pay for cremation) or design (possibly both); the initial ‘holding’ stage is not always attainable to all members of society (Leonowens 1988, Metcalf and Huntington 1991: 91–102, McKinley 1994a: 79, Downes 1999: 22).

The primary rite of cremation might be represented by the remains of the pyre site; the secondary rite by a contained or uncontained burial within a grave, accompanied or not by a primary and/or secondary deposit of pyre debris. Further deposits of pyre debris external to the grave or pyre site may precede or follow the burial; and the pyre site itself may form the place of burial. These—pyre site, grave, burial remains, and redeposited pyre debris—represent some of the more commonly encountered cremation-related features and deposits. There are, however, a (potentially infinite) variety of other types of deposit rendered possible largely due to the form and nature of the cremated remains themselves; separated and fragmented by the transformation effected by cremation, rendering them ‘inert’ and easily transportable. A common characteristic of the rite, both in the British Isles and elsewhere, was the frequent incomplete recovery of the cremated bone from the pyre site for formal burial, which would leave a varying quantity of cremated bone available for deposition or use elsewhere (Holck 1989: 119–30, Sigvallius 1994, table 3, McKinley 1997a, 2006a, 2008a, Wahl 2008).

Archaeologically encountered remains will undoubtedly only ever reflect a fraction of the attendant mortuary rites undertaken before, during, and after cremation. The nature of the archaeological investigations from which remains are recovered may also place limitations on the diversity of potentially associated cremation-related deposits which may be encountered at any individual site. This is particularly the case within commercial archaeology (the most common form of excavation in the UK now) where investigations are perforce restricted to the area being affected by the development. For example, the ‘key-hole’ excavations afforded by investigations within a building footprint or along a pipeline or road-route may encompass only part of the more extensive mortuary landscape which may be captured by an open area excavation. The geology, geography, and former land use on a site can adversely affect the survival and condition of some features/deposits and the bone within them. All these factors need to be considered in interpretation of the recovered data, and all need to be carefully recorded at the time of excavation.

A range of cremation-related features and deposits is commonly encountered in close association as part of the ‘mortuary landscape’; however, the ‘transportable’ nature of cremated remains means that some deposits are, and others potentially may be, found outside this arena (van Gennep 1977: 152, Metcalf and Huntington 1991: 102, McKinley 1994a: 70–1, 2006a, Oestigaard 1999, Eriksson 2005).


This section will outline the various archaeological components commonly encountered within cremation-related deposits.

Cremated bone

may be described as ‘burnt’, ‘oxidized’, or ‘calcined’, but may not necessarily be either of the latter two (McKinley 2008a). Oxidized and calcined are both expressions of one of the two (p. 150) major chemical changes which occur in cremation: dehydration and oxidation of the body's organic components. These processes leave only the mineral component of the bone in its fully oxidized state; hydroxyapatite, a calcium phosphate which at temperatures greater than 800˚C changes to a tricalcium phosphate (Shipman et al. 1984, Lange et al. 1987, Grupe and Hummel 1991, Holden et al. 1995a, 1995b, Hiller et al. 2003). Although much of the cremated bone recovered archaeologically can accurately be described as oxidized or calcined, such is not always the case. Full oxidation of the soft tissues and, with some minor acceptable variation, the bone is a requisite of modern Western cremation, but such is not necessarily the case within other contemporary cultures nor would it have been so in the past (Barber 1990: 381–7, Perrin 1998, Downes 1999: 23, 28, McKinley 2006a, 2008a). Similarly, not all burnt bone (human or animal) will have undergone the mortuary rite of cremation as we commonly understand it. For example, the incidental or possibly in some cases deliberate burning of dry and disarticulated human bone is relatively common in British archaeological contexts of prehistoric date (e.g. McKinley 2008b: 497). The interpretive term cremated bone should only be used where it is clear that the mortuary rite of cremation (transformation of a corpse by burning) has been followed; this avoids ambiguity, whilst not, in its broadest sense, building in any specific comment regarding the degree of oxidation (which would be considered under aspects of pyre technology).

Although largely a term attributed to human bone, animal remains subject to cremation—generally as an offering of some form on the pyre—are also referred to as cremated bone (see ‘Pyre goods’). Some individual animal cremation burials do exist within the archaeological record, as, for example the few 5–7th century ad horse cremation burials from the UK and elsewhere in Europe (e.g. Manchester 1976, Wahl 1982, Harman 1989, McKinley 1993a). Almost by definition, some cremated bone will be present within the majority of cremation-related contexts, though it need not necessarily represent the most common inclusion and, particularly as the study of other components within these types of deposit develop, it may be possible to recognize some such contexts which by accident or design may be devoid of cremated bone (see ‘Pyre debris’).


are the inorganic remains surviving after the removal, by oxidation, of the organic components of the material being burnt. The term is not restricted to specific particle size or material type (McKinley 1994a: 72, forthcoming a). Where the term is used, the material type should be specified to avoid ambiguity.

Pyre goods/grave goods

(‘goods’ being defined as ‘possessions and personal properties’ or ‘tangible commodities’, i.e. their nature and significance may be varied and debatable); the two should always be distinguished where possible since they relate to different parts of the mortuary rite (McKinley 2006a, Williams 2008). The former are materials (e.g. animal remains, food offerings, or artefacts) added to the pyre for cremation with the deceased, including items which may have been on the corpse (i.e. clothing and jewellery). Parts or all of any remains from these materials may be included in the burial, but may also be, and often are, recovered from other forms of deposit (e.g. Polfer 2000, Cool 2004: 455–7). Grave goods are unburnt materials (p. 151) added only during interment within the grave; some may even have been added as later offerings (e.g. Ortalli forthcoming). In some instances it can be difficult to deduce which type of deposit is represented since some materials may show little or no observable indications of burning despite having been on the pyre, either because of the material type (iron, for example) and/or the position of the item(s) on the pyre (McKinley 1994a: 90–1, 2006a, Northover and Montague 1997: 91).

Pyre debris

represents all the material remaining at the pyre site after the bone and pyre goods intended for burial have been removed. The major component usually comprises charred wood (remains of fuel) of varying particle size (from minute dust-sized particles to lumps of charred log), with varying quantities of cremated bone, sometimes pyre goods, and potentially (dependent on the underlying soil type) burnt flint, burnt clay and fuel ash slag (general hearth slag formed on highly siliceous soils). Other forms of fuel ash may be represented in some geographic areas; for example, peat appears to have represented an alternative form of fuel in parts of north-west Britain. In several of my own experimental pyres I found that peat formed an effective and efficient alternative to wood as a fuel for cremation but that some wood was still required to build a platform to support the corpse in the early stages.

A recent interesting development has been the interpretation of a deposit of fuel ash from a Mid-Late Bronze Age (1600–700 bc) vessel as the remains of pyre debris, despite the absence of supporting evidence in the form of cremated bone or the proximity of recognizable cremation-related deposits (Dinwiddy and McKinley 2009). The archaeobotanist based the interpretation on the lack of diversity and species identified (hawthorn/pear/apple) compared with those from domestic assemblages (Challinor forthcoming).

Form and Nature of Deposits

The deposit types outlined here make no claim to be, and could not represent, a comprehensive or exclusive list. The aim is to shift the focus of common archaeological terminology and interpretation away from the usual focus on ‘burials’, important and informative though their remains undoubtedly are, and illustrate the potential complexity and variability of the rite and how it may be reflected archaeologically.

The quantity of bone recovered from cremation burials is frequently not commensurate with all that which would have remained at the end of cremation. This common observation suggests that the remains from any one pyre may be distributed elsewhere, other than within ‘the burial’, in a variety of features/deposits within the funerary landscape; i.e. individual cremation-related deposits do not necessarily each equate with the product of different pyres. The bone from any one pyre may have been included in a formal burial, remained incorporated within the pyre debris (which could have remained in situ, been included in the grave fill and/or dumped in another feature), been deliberately or accidentally scattered (with or without other pyre debris), or packaged for curation or distribution to mourners.

Some forms of feature/deposit are more frequently encountered than others (graves), more easily recognized (urned burials, burials with grave goods), have better survival (p. 152) rates (e.g. graves under mounds, grübenbusta—pits over which pyres were constructed, into which the remains fell, and which eventually formed the place of burial) and are easier to define. Scatters of cremated bone, for example, may be observed, but it can be difficult to deduce if they are accidental, incidental, or deliberate deposits (e.g. Sigvallius 2005).

Pyre sites

The location of the pyre itself needs be distinguished from the area in which cremations were undertaken (the Roman ustrina) and in which individual pyre sites may not be discernible amongst a mass of pyre debris. Most pyre sites were probably constructed directly on the ground surface; the necessary under-pyre draft being provided by the structure of the pyre itself (McKinley 1994a: fig. 19, 2000a, forthcoming a). On many geologies (clays, silty clays, chalk), clear evidence of in situ burning will be apparent (red, pink, black, or grey discolouration), but in some cases, such as calcareous sands or humic/garden soils, there may be no surviving evidence. Even where in situ burning does create variations in soil colour, the effects do not penetrate far (c.50–100 mm; McKinley forthcoming a: fig. 3) and all traces could be easily removed by later disturbance such as ploughing. Associated features may offer greater protection and visibility. Some pyre sites have stone surrounds or more substantial stone ‘ghats’ (e.g. Casey and Hoffmann 1995, McKinley forthcoming a). Cut features include under-pyre draft pits or scoops and deeper pits—grübenbusta (singular bustum)—which may also form the grave (e.g. Jessup 1959: 6, Struck 1993, Fitzpatrick 1997: fig. 7, McKinley forthcoming a, Dodwell in prep.). Pyre sites may have been cleared of debris after use or retain some in situ pyre debris which could include cremated bone (e.g. Sjösvärd et al. 1983, Arcini 2005: fig. 3, Biddulph 2009, Downes forthcoming).

Rare examples of more substantial structural remains, possibly those of ‘cremators’, have been found at a few Romano-British sites (1st–2nd century ad) and contemporaneous sites elsewhere in Europe (Davey 1935, Black 1986: 210–11, Polfer 2000: fig. 3.1). Currently it is unclear quite how these structures would have been used (McKinley forthcoming a).

Cremation burial

The cremated bone recovered from the pyre site for formal burial. The burial may have been made in an urn, generally a ceramic vessel, though occasionally glass or metal was used. Most of these vessels were probably originally sealed, though subsequent disturbance often destroys the evidence. The types of lid which have been found include stones, ceramic vessels, textiles, skins, and clay plugs; a recent rare example of the latter being found in the small Romano-British cemetery at Poundbury Farm, Dorchester, Dorset (Egging Dinwiddy and Bradley 2011, McKinley forthcoming a: fig. 8). Unurned burials generally seem to have been made in some form of organic container, evident from concentrated deposits of cremated bone, usually situated towards or at the base of the grave. These could include wooden caskets (mostly Romano-British in the UK), basketry, or, probably most frequently, leather/textile bags. There are a few examples from the British Isles of uncontained burials where the bone was spread on the base of the grave (e.g. grave 5132 at Thomas Hardye School, Dorchester, Dorset; personal observation and Gardiner et al. 2007) or cist (e.g. Crantit, Orkney; Balin-Smith forthcoming).

(p. 153) Cremation grave

A pit or cist constructed to serve as a place of burial. The term ‘cremation pit’ may occasionally be seen used in this sense in UK literature but is best avoided; its imprecision lends itself to various interpretations and it is used by different writers to mean different things, including the grave, busta-style pyre sites (see above) or any hole in the ground containing any form of cremation-related deposit. The most apt use for the term would be a pit over which the pyre was constructed and burnt, which may or may not subsequently have formed the place of burial (e.g. Arcini 2005); i.e. a bustum or ‘bustum-style’ pyre site.

Although most graves appear to contain the remains of an individual from a single cremation, such is not always the case; some variations are more common than others and some seem to have been specific to certain periods. A grave may contain:

  • the remains of more than one burial, i.e. two cremated individuals each buried separately as at the Romano-British graves at Hyde Street, Winchester, Hampshire (McKinley 2004a);

  • a dual/multiple burial, i.e. the remains of two or rarely more individuals cremated and buried together in a single deposit. About 5% of British burials will be of this form, most frequently an adult with an immature individual (McKinley 2006a, Hope 2007: 20). Up to five individuals were recorded from some of the Middle Neolithic burials from Dorchester-on-Thames, Oxon (Harman 1992);

  • the remains of one cremated individual buried in more than one vessel (accessory burial) or split between an urned and an unurned deposit (combined burials) as at the Romano-British cemetery at Brougham, Cumbria (McKinley 2004b: 304);

  • an animal accessory burial, where a human and an entire animal have been cremated and buried as largely separated deposits, either in two vessels or with the human remains in the vessel and the animal remains in an adjacent organic container. Currently in the UK these deposits appear restricted to the early Anglo-Saxon period (ad 410–650) in northern and central-eastern England (McKinley 1993a, 1994a) and the species featured are generally ‘status’ animals such as horse and dog.


Features which have the characteristic appearance of graves, potentially including pyre goods and pyre debris, and even grave goods, but which are either devoid of or contain very little cremated bone (often less than 10 g). Toynbee (1996: 54) noted the Romans’ use of cenotaphs ‘if a person's body was not available for burial’ or ‘for some person whose remains were buried elsewhere’. Numerous examples have been recorded from Romano-British sites (Wenham 1968: 25, Wheeler 1985, McKinley 2000a, 2004b: 284, 306–7); other examples include those from France (Flouest 1993) and Sweden (Frisberg 2005). The practice is likely to be fairly widespread; the presence of what appear to represent ‘empty’ inhumation graves having been recorded in numerous cemeteries across a wide temporal range (e.g. McKinley 2004d).

Redeposited pyre debris (RPD)

Although it may be found in situ at pyre sites, where the distribution of components and skeletal elements can reveal vital details of the formation process of the deposit (e.g. Sjösvärd et al. 1983, McKinley 1996, Biddulph 2009, Downes forthcoming), pyre debris is most (p. 154) frequently encountered redeposited, where it usually comprises a more-or-less homogeneous mix of archaeological components. It is frequently recovered from cremation graves (with urned and particularly unurned burial remains), but is also found in:

  • pre-existent features; e.g. Bronze Age ditch fills (McKinley 2000d: fig. 38) and redundant Romano-British quarry pits (Barber and Bowsher 2000: fig. 56);

  • specifically excavated features, i.e. formal deposits of pyre debris (Jessup 1959: 6–7, McKinley 2004b);

  • surface spreads, as for example in various Romano-British cemeteries (Wenham 1968: 21–6, McKinley 1991, forthcoming a).

Its presence commonly indicates that the pyre site was in the general vicinity and, if not from the cremation grave fill, it will often (but not always) signify that there is a formal ‘burial’ to which it will relate somewhere within close proximity. Depositions of this type clearly formed a deliberate and significant part of the mortuary rite, and study of the materials within such deposits have revealed significant information pertaining to funerary practices (e.g. Polfer 2000, Cool 2004: 455–7, Leary 2008).

‘Token’ deposits

The word ‘token’ is variously defined as ‘symbolic’, ‘nominal’, or a ‘memento’. Its use in respect to the mortuary rite of cremation is slightly problematic, the term ‘token burial’ being used to cover a multitude of undoubtedly different types of deposit containing only small quantities of bone. The size of the ‘token’ is not set but seems to include quantities of less than 100 g (i.e. less than 6% of the expected weight of bone from an average adult cremation: McKinley 1993b). Most cremation burials could probably be described as ‘token’ in as much as few of those from the UK appear to have included all the bone that would have remained at the end of cremation. Although a variety of taphonomic factors may affect the quantity of bone surviving in cremation burials (form of burial, disturbance, soil acidity, and permeability), and some minor temporal and geographic variations have been observed, the average weight of bone which appears to have been included in adult burials falls within the 600–900 g range, i.e. c.38–50% of the average expected from an adult cremation (McKinley 1994b, 1997a, 2004b: 295–8).

So, what does this term ‘token’ indicate in those cases where it has been used? If the quantity of bone included in the deposit is so small as to represent only a ‘finger's-worth’, does it really qualify for the term ‘burial’ even with the ‘token’ prefix? (especially bearing in mind that a ‘burial’, in the commonly understood sense, is likely to exist somewhere). Is ‘token burial’ the most appropriate term? Might some of these deposits not be better interpreted as cenotaphs for example? Would others best be described as ‘mementoes’—small, symbolic amounts of bone retained by the deceased's friends or relatives as, for example, those distributed in 18th century Aboriginal Australia (Hiatt 1969: 105). Some such deposits may eventually have been buried, perhaps at a much later date, together with the remains of another individual. Two such deposits, which seemed to represent the remains of small bags of cremated bone (c.9 g and 48 g), were included in two of the Anglo-Saxon inhumation burials at Collingbourne Ducis, Wiltshire (McKinley forthcoming b). Another potential form of ‘token’ symbolic or memento mori deposit could be represented by the deliberate incorporation of (p. 155) one or two bone fragments from a second individual within the burial remains of another (e.g. McKinley 2004a, 2006b).

Cremation-related deposit/feature

It is not always possible to categorize deposits and features which appear to have some link to the cremation rite. Low-level survival due to extensive truncation/disturbance, or poor-quality/imprecise excavation and recording, may preclude confident deduction of the deposit type even at the ‘either/or’ level. The nature of the deposit itself may simply be inconclusive, for example, small quantities of bone and/or pyre debris which may have derived from the same cremation as that within more definable adjacent deposits. In such cases it is preferable to present good descriptive and objective terminology rather than simply assume a deposit is a ‘burial’. The interpretation may always be resolved at a later date.

Excavation and Recording

All cremation-related deposits should be subject to full excavation and whole-earth recovery (i.e. 100% ‘sampling’), with separate context (and sample) numbers allocated to what are clearly separate deposits within one feature. Analysis of the formation process of a deposit often requires a more detailed breakdown than may be achieved by the en masse collection of what appears to represent (and may indeed be) a single context. Excavation is, therefore, often undertaken in a series of related ‘samples’ which will subsequently be subject to environmental processing, comprising flotation (500 micron for recovery of charred plant remains and charcoal) and wet sieving to 1 mm fraction-size (McKinley 2000b: 414, 2004c). Extraneous coarse components (e.g. grit) should be fully extracted from the larger sieve fractions (5 mm and above) and the residues from the smaller fractions (2 mm and below) should be retained for scanning by the various specialists (primarily the osteologist).

The following is a brief outline of advised excavation procedures for some of the major deposit types. A level of flexibility is required since the form and dimensions of features/deposits may vary. In some cases greater detail may be required, for example, where a large number of pyre goods as well as the cremated bone remain on a pyre site. It is always advisable to have the osteoarchaeologist either on site to excavate complex deposits or at least available for consultation during excavation. The recovery stage of such deposits is vital to what can be achieved later in analysis and in some cases informed decisions have to be taken as a site unfolds.

Pyre Sites

In situ material on a pyre site may lie as it fell as the pyre collapsed or it may have been subject to one or more form of post-cremation manipulation. The latter may be apparent where, for example, the bone forms a concentrated heap or was collected and placed in a container. Otherwise such details can only be detected during analysis of the archaeological components, the human remains providing the framework around which other materials will have been laid.

(p. 156) An undifferentiated, homogeneous in situ deposit from either a flat site or a cut feature should be excavated as a series of blocks and, if the deposit is sufficiently deep (greater than 0.10 m), spits of 0.10 m depth. As a guide, an area c.1.40 m long by 0.60 m wide should be divided down the long axis and collected in a series of c.0.20 m2 blocks to either side, each block being allocated a separate sample number within a consecutive series (Sjösvärd et al. 1983, 136: fig. 2, McKinley 2000c: fig. 16.1, forthcoming a: fig. 10, Arcini 2005: fig. 3). Observed artefactual materials should be recorded in three dimensions.

The excavated segments should be clearly labelled on fairly detailed scale drawings (at about 1:10), together with visible concentrations of bone or other material types and object find locations; levels should also be shown. Written records should give dimensions, and describe the form, archaeological and coarse components, and their distribution, together with a note of the sample numbers pertaining to that context. It is particularly helpful to record what was evident within the deposit at surface level and the maximum bone fragment size observed prior to excavation. A full photographic record should be made before, during, and after excavation.

Redeposited Pyre Debris

Spreads, deposits in large features and within structures, should be treated in a similar fashion to pyre sites. The blocks could be slightly larger but should not be in excess of 0.50 m2 and 0.10 m represents a useful spit depth (McKinley forthcoming a: fig. 7). Osteological analysis of such deposits will aim to ascertain the distribution of duplicate skeletal elements and check for joins between bone fragments to assist in distinguishing the formation process (e.g. concentrations of bone or layering of successive dumps of material not evident visually), as well as deducing such information as minimum number of individuals (MNI).

Formal deposits of redeposited pyre debris and the remains of unurned burials with additional deposits of pyre debris may look exactly the same, appearing as a charcoal-rich black fill at surface level in which some bone may or may not be evident. Details of the formation process are often key to the interpretation of deposit type in these cases. Such deposits may occur in relatively small cuts (c.0.30–0.60 m diameter) and whole-earth recovery in quadrants and spits should be undertaken.

Burial Remains

Graves containing the remains of urned or unurned burials may also include pyre debris in large quantities (see above) or as easily distinguished discrete deposits. Where the different stratigraphic entities are easily distinguished, they should be attributed separate numbers and collected and recorded as such, thereby enabling the formation processes to be analysed.

Urned burials

A clear written description of the feature/deposit should be accompanied by scale drawings (1:10; plans and section, annotate coarse and archaeological components and changes (p. 157) in density of distribution) and photographs at pre-, half, and full excavation stages. Complete or near complete vessels should be wrapped with crêpe bandage (flexibility and support) and lifted, north being clearly labelled; excavation can continue under laboratory conditions. If the vessel is badly damaged (in which case evidence of the burial formation process is likely to have been lost), the bone from ‘outside’ the vessel should be kept separate from that ‘inside’, each being allocated separate but preferably consecutive context numbers. Further laboratory excavation should be undertaken, preferably by the osteoarchaeologist. Where the soil type is such (overly acidic) that it is likely to lead to the disintegration and loss of trabecular bone, or even in extreme cases to the extensive break-up of compact bone, it may be advantageous to undertake a CT scan of the vessel fill prior to its removal; thus providing a further visual record of the skeletal elements, bone fragment size, and distribution which may be lost on excavation (Anderson 1995; Harvig et al. 2012). The fill should be removed in quadrants and spits of 20 mm, a photographic record and annotated scale drawing being made at each spit level (e.g. McKinley 1993a: figs. 22–4, 1997b: figs. 141–3, forthcoming a: fig. 9). This will allow micro-details of the burial formation process to be ascertained. If this is not possible, the fill should be removed in 20 mm spits, with a digital photographic record at each level, and a written record of the context should be made as normal.

Unurned burials

The deposit should be quadranted and, if greater than 0.10 m in depth, excavated and collected as 0.10 m spits. Each quadrant and, where appropriate, spit should be collected under the same context number but with an individual sample number, preferably forming part of a consecutive series with a clear description as to which sample derives from where (e.g. ‘500 = NE quad; 501—NW quad’, etc.). All too often, resources expended on detailed excavation of deposits are wasted due to the excavator's failure to record where samples came from and how they relate to each other.


Cremated bone is very brittle and breaks easily. Placing bags of such bone at the base of a container and then placing heavy bags of stone/pottery on top of them will increase fragmentation and adversely affect later analysis: handle with care!

Cremation: Modern Crematoria and Pyre Cremation

Cremation is a process of dehydration and oxidation effected by the interaction between three basic requirements: sufficient temperature to ensure the corpse will burn; adequate oxygen supply; and enough time to allow the organic components of the body to be oxidized (Holck 1989: 42, McKinley 1994a: 72–8, 2000b, 2008a, Walker et al. 2008).

In modern cremators these requirements are monitored by computer-linked sensors and automatically adjusted where necessary. British cremators are fuelled by gas, a single (p. 158) jet being located at the head-end in the most recent models. Committal temperatures are within the 700–850˚C range, the cremator being pre-heated where necessary (generally for those cremations undertaken early in the day, the heat-retentive brickwork of the structure effectively maintains heat between charges; Fig. 9.1). The operating temperature fluctuates during the course of cremation (between around 800–1,000˚C), first as the burning body tissues lead to an increase, followed by a gradual fall once most of the tissues have burnt away (after around 45 minutes). Temperature variations may also occur between individual cremations dependent on the age, sex, and build of the ‘charge’ (reflective of more or less soft tissues), which will be compensated for by the application of the external heat source. The oxygen supply is maintained via a number of air flows (McKinley 1994a: fig. 17) which ensure oxidizing rather than reducing conditions are sustained, assist in controlling the temperature, and serve to circulate both heat and oxygen within the cremator (McKinley 2008a).

Cremation generally takes about one and a half hours to complete. Cremation of the bone itself cannot commence until the overlying soft tissues—insulating the bone from both heat and oxygen—have been removed. Since the thickness of these tissues varies across the body, some bones (such as the skull, forearms and lower legs) will be exposed before other areas of the skeleton (Fengming 2005: table 2, Symes et al. 2008: plates 2 and 3). This can lead to variations in both the temperature attained by and throughout the depth of individual bones (reflected in the crystal structure, Shipman et al. 1984, Holden et al. 1995a, 1995b, Hiller et al. 2003) and the degree of oxidation (reflected in the colour of the bone—Shipman et al. 1984, Holden et al. 1995a, 1995b). The type of bone, i.e. trabecular compared with compact bone, is also of some significance to the level of oxidation (McKinley 1994a: 72–8, 2008a). On completion of cremation, the bone is raked down from the main hearth (on which the coffin is initially placed) onto a middle hearth and thence to the collection box (McKinley 1994a: 72–8); more recent cremators no longer feature the middle hearth. Movement of the hot, brittle bone results in further fragmentation along the lines of dehydration formed during cremation (Fig. 9.2); pulverization of the bone represents a different stage in the process by means of a cremulator (Fig. 9.2).

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fig. 9.1 Temperatures recorded at 15-minute intervals in (a) modern crematoria (four cremators, numbers 1–5 marking the final readings taken for successive cremations) and (b) an experimental pyre cremation

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fig. 9.2 Cremated bone from a modern cremation prior to cremulation (pulverization)

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fig. 9.3 An experimental pyre cremation showing quantities of charred soft tissues remaining after main body of pyre has burnt down (c.2 hours)

Temperatures comparable with those seen in modern crematoria are routinely observed in experimental pyre cremations (e.g. Fig. 9.1, McKinley 1997a, 2008a). The known calorific values of various woods, the condition of archaeological cremated bone and non-osseous pyre goods demonstrate this would also have been the case with ancient pyres (e.g. Holck 1989: 27–45, McKinley 1994a: 84). However, a number of intrinsic and extrinsic variables, some more or less controllable than others, could affect the efficiency of pyre cremation. A consistent temperature could not be maintained across the pyre or throughout cremation, and most of the heat would be lost to the atmosphere; the corpse would normally be placed at or towards the top of the pyre within the area of maximum heat and oxygen supply. The pyre peripheries would be cooler than central areas; variable wind strength and veering could cool parts of the pyre, and result in uneven burning and collapse; a heavy downpour of rain could douse the whole thing (McKinley 2008a). A ‘cremation attendant’ (equivalent to the Roman professional ustores) would need to be on hand to deal with any such problems arising during cremation. Oxygen availability may be inhibited to all or parts of the corpse by various mechanisms, including the position of the body, the presence and form of a funeral bier or couch, and the location and type of pyre (p. 159) (p. 160) goods (e.g. thick furs or leather capes). In the various experimental cremations conducted by the writer, the main structure of the pyre had generally burnt down after c.2 hours, but much charred soft tissue remained. Left on the bed of hot ashes, cremation of this material continued for up to 6–7 hours, resulting in the oxidation of most or all of the bone and soft tissues (Fig. 9.3, McKinley 2008a). This timescale is commensurate with that apparently followed in many Roman cremations (Noy 2005). It should be remembered that the requirement for ‘full’ oxidation of the organic components of the body is largely a modern Western requisite, but is not necessarily considered essential within other contemporary (p. 161) cultures nor need it have been in the past (Barber 1990: 381–2, Perrin 1998, McKinley 2006a, 2008a).

Osteoarchaeological Analysis and Interpretation

It is not intended to enter into details of osteological analysis here (see e.g. Holck 1989, McKinley 2000b, Wahl 2008), but rather to outline the varied aims of that analysis and some of its limitations, and to illustrate how the data may inform our understanding of the mortuary rite. Osteological analysis should not be undertaken in isolation from the archaeological context data (see above). The context can influence the quantity of bone recovered (e.g. disturbed/undisturbed) and its condition (e.g. bone survival and level of fragmentation) and, thereby, the amount of recoverable data and its integrity. Such information is vital to individual interpretations and for the inter- and intra-site comparability of data. Failure to take the archaeological context into account can result in misinterpretation of the osteological data.

The three main categories of information addressed by routine osteological analysis are demography, pathology, and pyre technology and aspects of cremation ritual. The quality and quantity of retrievable data is dependent on two main features: the amount of bone recovered and the level of fragmentation. The former can vary widely, depending on, for example, the age of the individual, type of deposit (see above), and taphonomic factors. The degree of fragmentation to the bone is affected by a number of intrinsic (e.g. dehydration) (p. 162) and extrinsic (e.g. levels of manipulation, burial microenvironment, excavation procedures; McKinley 1994b) factors.

Demographic Data

Demographic information is important to many aspects of mortuary studies, in terms of both the profile of the cemetery population and the potential variability in mortuary treatment afforded different members of a social group.

Although the basic methods for identifying the minimum number of individuals (MNI) are relatively straightforward—duplication of identifiable bone fragments and age-related differences in bone size—the archaeological context potentially has an effect. Underestimation of numbers is possible, particularly where there has been major disturbance or bone preservation is very poor; equally there is the danger of over-estimating if context data and interpretation of the deposit type is not carefully considered. The incomplete recovery of cremated bone from the pyre site for inclusion in the burial may present particular problems where there has been a dual cremation of an adult and an infant—the latter potentially being poorly represented within the secondary rite of burial (McKinley 1994a: 102, 2004b: 209, 303).

Relatively close ageing of immature individuals is often possible, particularly where unerupted tooth crowns survive, but the techniques become less precise as an individual progresses through adulthood (e.g. Cox 2000, Whittaker 2000). A major problem with cremated remains—with both ageing and sexing of adults—is the incomplete recovery of the cremated remains for burial, and that those collecting the bone did not always bury the skeletal elements most useful to the osteologist. In the majority of cases it should be possible at least to distinguish between ‘immature’ (under 18 years) and ‘adult’ (over 18 years), and age ranges of varying size will be attributable in many instances, but there are inevitable limitations. For example, at Brougham, Cumbria, 1% of the MNI of 146 could not be aged at all, 7.5% fell in the under 13 year range, and 20% could not be categorized closer than ‘adult’ (McKinley 2004b: table 6.1). The wider application of histological ageing methods in future may help to overcome these difficulties (see e.g. Herrmann 1977, Hummel and Schutkowski 1993, Cuijpers 1997, Cox 2000, McKinley 2000b).

Any assemblage will always include a substantial proportion of unsexed adults (e.g. Brougham 49%; Wall, Staffordshire 50%; Spong Hill, Norfolk 61.6%; McKinley 1994a, 2004b, 2008c: 133), and even where sex can be indicated confidence levels may vary. When using osteological data in the analysis of other archaeological data from the site, for example pyre/grave good associations, such a shortfall should always be considered to ensure the results from such analyses are not potentially misleading.


The study of the health of an individual or cemetery population generally forms a major component of any osteological report on unburnt skeletal remains (see Roberts, this volume). This area of study is limited for cremated material due to the condition of the bone and incomplete skeletal recovery restricting diagnoses. A similar range of pathological lesions to those seen in unburnt bone are observed in cremated remains, but not necessarily (p. 163) with the commonly recorded frequencies (e.g. Holck 1989: 186–215, McKinley 1994a: 106–118, Wahl 2008: 156–7). Dental lesions, for example, are often limited to those affecting the supportive structure, since the tooth enamel tends to shatter during cremation and is frequently not recovered; joint diseases may be under-represented due to loss of the trabecular bone as a result of osteoporotic bone crumbling in cremation or preferential taphonomic destruction (McKinley 1997b: 245, Nielsen-Marsh et al. 2000); surviving evidence for fractures and weapon trauma is relatively rare (Musgrave 1985, Holck 1989: 198, McKinley 2008c: 134). Conversely, evidence for some lesions seldom observed may be found, possibly as a consequence of excavation procedures (i.e. whole-earth recovery), for example, calcified lymph nodes associated with tuberculosis (Baud and Kramar 1991, McKinley 1994a: 112–14).

Pyre Technology and Cremation Ritual

Many of the factors pertaining to these aspects of the mortuary rite have been outlined and discussed in preceding sections. Diverse levels of oxidation efficiency within and between different cremations may give insights into the cremation process (see section on Cremation: Modern Crematoria and Pyre Cremation). Thermally induced colour variations may be recorded and analysed with the aim of attributing causes, though the latter are often potentially multi-factorial. Temporal and geographical variations probably occurred for a multiplicity of reasons, some accidental and others deliberate; Holck (1989: fig. 25) recorded geographic variations in grades of burning in prehistoric burials from Norway.

The weight of bone recovered from burials in the UK varies widely. Amongst the more than 6,000 burials remains I have analysed, I found that the material from undisturbed single burials of adults had a weight range from less than 100 g to c.3,000 g. On average between 40–60% of the expected bone weight is recovered from adult burials in the UK (McKinley 1993b, 1994b). As yet no consistent pattern has emerged, indicative of the factors affecting the quantity of bone included in a burial (adult age, sex, burial type, implied status), but there do appear to be some broad temporal variations; for example, low weights are often recovered from Late Iron Age burials, whilst some types of Bronze Age deposits commonly include high weights of greater than 900 g (McKinley 1997a, 1997b, 2004b: 306–7, see also Oestigaard, this volume). Broader geographical variations are indicated by the comparatively low weights of bone frequently recorded from Scandinavian burials (e.g. Holck 1989: 117–30, Frisberg 2005, Oestigaard, this volume) and elsewhere in Continental Europe (e.g. Wahl 2008).

Fragmentation of cremated bone, generally recorded via average and maximum sizes or volume (Holck 1989, McKinley 2004c), occurs as a consequence of a variety of intrinsic and extrinsic factors in which mode of burial, burial microenvironment, and levels of disturbance (including excavation) figure largely (Wahl 1982, McKinley 1993b, 1994b). Ritual activities associated with cooling remains, bone collection and storage, and other forms of deliberate manipulation may represent influential mechanisms in some cases (Downes 1999: 23, Noy 2005, McKinley 2006a). The majority of the bone fragments in UK burials are greater than 10 mm in size and rarely suggest deliberate fragmentation (e.g. McKinley 2004b, 2008c: 135). Bone fragments of up to 90–100 mm have been recovered from vessels of a similar rim diameter and into which they must have been inserted (p. 164) lengthways (Fig. 9.4). Consistently smaller fragment sizes from deposits recovered elsewhere in Europe are suggestive of at least broad geographical variations (e.g. Wahl 1982, Asperborg 2005).

The majority of UK cremation burials of all periods comprise an apparently random assortment of skeletal elements from all four skeletal areas (skull, axial skeleton, upper and lower limbs). Allowing for the intrinsic biases of bone preservation and ease of identification (Holck 1989: 69–73, McKinley 1994a: 6, 2004b: 298–301), the occasionally recorded absences of some elements—particularly skull—suggest deliberate pre- or post-cremation manipulation and selection of remains. It has been suggested that the frequency of recovery of the small bones of the hands and feet may be related to the mode of recovery of remains from the pyre site for burial (McKinley 2004b: 298–301).

The type, form, quantity, and frequency of pyre goods recovered from cremation-related deposits vary greatly both temporally and, within some periods, across different geographic areas of the British Isles (e.g. McKinley 1994a: 86, 2006a, 2008c: 187–8). The degree of burning observed to pyre goods and the occasional fusion of melted glass or metals to bone give some indications of the layout of the body and associated materials on the pyre and the temperature attained in those areas (e.g. McKinley 1994a: 83–4). The analysis of what materials are found where and with whom exercise much time and interest for a wide range of researchers: who were the goods for? Who were they provided by and why? What was their significance? (See e.g. Holck 1989: 170–7, Sjösvärd et al. 1983, Gräslund 1994: 15–16, McKinley 1994a: 86–100, 2006a, Sigvallius 1994: 61–117, Iregren 1997, Kreuz 2000, Cool 2004: 438–43, Bond and Worley 2006.)

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fig. 9.4 Large size of bone fragments in an archaeological cremation burial devoid of soil

Broader issues of practice and interpretation of meaning, drawing on archaeological, historical, anthropological, and ethnographic evidence, have been undertaken by numerous scholars. Such studies include Gräslund's work on prehistoric soul beliefs (1994), Oestigaard's discussion on the curation of cremated remains (1999), Asperborg's consideration of the location and broader function of mortuary landscape in prehistoric Uppland (2005), and Williams’ broad theoretical approach to the subject (2008; see also Oestigaard, this volume, McKinley 2006a).

(p. 165) Specialist Analysis

The last few decades have seen several important breakthroughs in this area and work continues in the adaptation and development of other techniques for use on cremated remains (such as isotope analysis and aDNA). The development of a reliable radiocarbon technique for use on cremated remains has been of great importance, and routine analysis of samples from deposits devoid of datable artefactual material is now undertaken. Fully oxidized bone is required for this process, the technique using carbonates trapped within the altered crystal structure of the bone during cremation (Lanting et al. 2001).

The analysis of stable isotopes (reflecting dietary intake and origin) from cremated bones and teeth has yet to be further developed, and on current evidence is likely to be limited in its scope and application (Schurr et al. 2008). Unerupted tooth crowns do, however, hold an as yet untapped potential for study. Although the survival, recovery, and analysis of the organic materials necessary for aDNA has been undertaken on cremated bone (e.g. Catteneo 1994, Wahl 2008, Walker et al. 2008), it does not survive at temperatures greater than 600°C (Walker et al. 2008), and potentially not even at 300–400°C, at which point much of the organic component is oxidized. Future application of any of these techniques will be dependent on the level of oxidation to the bone.

Concluding Remarks

The study of cremation, whilst attracting the attention of some archaeologists in parts of mainland Europe and Scandinavia (Lange et al. 1987), was long dismissed by many (certainly in the UK) as of limited value due the fragmentary condition and altered state of the bone. Much remains to be revealed of this often underestimated rite. It requires consistency in approach and language to enable comparison of material from different sites and, an absolute imperative, the correct excavation procedures and precise descriptive recording on site so that further developments in analysis can call upon high quality basic site recording to assist in interpretation.


Figure 9.1 was prepared for publication by Rob Goller, Wessex Archaeology.

Suggested Further Reading

Suggested Further Reading

Cool, H. 2004. The Roman Cemetery at Brougham, Cumbria. London: Britannia Monograph Series 21.Find this resource:

    A report on the excavation and remains from c.241 cremation graves and other mortuary features in the late Romano-British Northern Frontier Zone cemetery at Brougham.

    Davies, D., with Mates L. H. (ed.) 2005. Encyclopaedia of Cremation. Aldershot: Ashgate.Find this resource:

      (p. 166) An edited volume with a series of short papers comprehensively covering many aspects of modern cremation across the globe (machinery, technology, practice and belief) and including several contributions on ancient cremation.

      Fitzpatrick, A. P. 1997. Archaeological Excavations on the Route of the A27 Westhampnett Bypass, West Sussex, 1992 Volume 2. Salisbury: Wessex Archaeology Report No. 12.Find this resource:

        A report on one of the few Late Iron Age cremation cemeteries excavated in the UK with evidence for pyre sites, a possible mortuary house, and 159 graves (+ c.31 early Romano-British).

        Holck, P. 1989. Cremated Bones: A Medical-Anthropological Study of Archaeological Material on Cremation Burials. Anthropologiske skrifer 1 Anatomisk institutt. Oslo: University of Oslo.Find this resource:

          A comprehensive analysis of just over 1,000 multi-period burials from Norway; additional useful chapters on the thermodynamics and chemistry of cremation, and historical evidence for the rite.

          Lange, M., Schutkowski, H., Hummel, S., and Herrmann, B. 1987. A Bibliography on Cremations. PACT 19. Göttingen: University of Göttingen.Find this resource:

            A short but useful introductory text (German and English, part French) to a 636-entry bibliography of papers on cremation and cremated remains (predominantly German, Dutch, and Polish).

            McKinley, J. I. 1994a. Spong Hill Part VIII: The Cremations. East Dereham, Norfolk: East Anglian Archaeology 69.Find this resource:

              A report on the cremated remains from the 2000+ Early Anglo-Saxon graves excavated at Spong Hill, Norfolk. Includes chapters on modern crematoria, nature of cremated bone, methodology for analysis, experimental work, and ethnographic/anthropological parallels.

              Millett, M., Pearce, J., and Struck, M. (eds) 2000. Burial, Society and Context in the Roman World. Oxford: Oxbow.Find this resource:

                This edited volume includes several papers dealing with different aspects of the cremation rite, including pyre goods, archaeobotanical remains, and deposit types.

                Parsons, B. 2005. Committed to the Cleansing Flame: The Development of Cremation in Nineteenth-Century England. Reading: Spire Books.Find this resource:

                  This book charts the struggle for the reintroduction of cremation in England, together with a history of the modern cremator.

                  Schmit, C. W., and Symes S. A. (eds) 2008. The Analysis of Burnt Human Remains. London: Academic Press.Find this resource:

                    An edited book of 15 chapters, with coverage split between recent analytical work on thermal changes to the bone (often in a forensic settling), and archaeological analysis and interpretation.

                    Sigvallius, B. 1994. Funeral Pyres: Iron Age Cremations in North Spǻnga Theses and Papers in Osteology 1. Stockholm: Stockholm University.Find this resource:

                      This work presents the analysis of almost 500 Swedish Iron Age cremation burials, focusing on the use of animals within the cremation rite both from the study site and across the temporal range. Includes a background to the tradition of cremation in Sweden and data from experimental cremations.

                      Smits, E., Iregren, E., and Drusini, A. G. (eds) 1997. Cremation Studies in Archaeology. Saonara: Logos Edizioni.Find this resource:

                        A collection of eight papers presented at one of the very rare symposia dedicated to the study of cremated remains held in Amsterdam in 1995. The volume includes two papers on histological analytical methods and regional studies from Sweden, Italy, and the Netherlands.

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