Later Iron Age cremations: interregional practices, local peculiarities

During the Later Iron Age cremation was extremely popular. Guest-blogger Andy Lamb examines this practice.

At certain times in European prehistory, new developments arose which were subsequently adopted and adapted across a wide area of the continent. One these was the decision to cremate the dead, which from the 3rd century BC became the preferred funerary practice for Iron Age communities from the Balkans to south eastern Britain. This broad stretch of Europe corresponds with what is termed the La Tène zone; named after the distinctive curvilinear artwork which communities in these regions produced. Although sharing many commonalities, the communities within this zone were by no means culturally uniform, and instead we find a great degree of variety within the archaeological record. Cremation, though adopted by many communities in this region, was likewise adapted and developed in specific, local ways. Some communities, such as those in southern Switzerland and south west Britain, chose not to adopt cremation, preferring instead to inhume their dead. Others, such as those in Brittany, even abandoned cremation during this period. Nevertheless, these exceptions aside, we can speak of the period c.300BC-AD50 being one in which cremation prevailed.

Modern European cremations are very clinical, private and predictable affairs involving few objects (typically the coffin and the clothing in which the deceased is dressed) and conducted out of sight of the mourners. By contrast later Iron Age cremations could be highly performative, public and unpredictable. Such cremations were conducted on open air pyres in view of the community. Examples of such pyres are rarely encountered by archaeologists, however exceptions do exist, such as at the cemetery at Westhampnett, West Sussex (c.90-50BC). One of the main reasons that archaeologists struggle to detect such pyres is that it was common to bury the cremated remains in a different location to the pyre. Nevertheless, exceptions do exist, such as the early 3rd century BC graves of the Hunsrück-Eifel culture (Middle Rhine) and some 1st century BC graves in Northern Italy. In these cases the pyre was simply buried; a practice known as a bustium.

Just as there was variation in how the deceased was cremated, so too was there variation in what the deceased was cremated with. Many later Iron Age communities opted to place food offerings on the pyre, whilst the presence of burnt brooches in cremation graves attests to the fact the deceased were dressed when they were placed on the pyre. Some, such as those of the Middle Rhine, northern Italy and Serbia provided their dead with weaponry, whilst others, such as those of northern France, rarely did. There was also a clear division in some cases between what objects were not placed on the pyre, but were instead placed directly in the grave. These distinctions could vary even between communities of the same region. For example, in Picardy, northern France, those in the Somme valley chose to place feasting equipment (typically firedogs, cauldrons and grills) directly in the grave, without exposing them to the pyre. Only a short distance away, contemporary communities on the Picardy coast were placing grills on the pyre. In the Middle Rhine communities chose to ritually destroy pottery by placing it on the pyre, whilst those north of the Thames likewise destroyed pottery, but not by way of a pyre.

Reconstructing later Iron Age cremation rites is a challenging process, as many of the activities which occurred with these events leaves no archaeological trace. Nevertheless, the picture that comes to light is a fascinating one which highlights pan-European commonalities with clearly local flavours. In reconstructing such cremations, we develop a picture of a highly-interconnected world, but one in which local views determined how an increasingly common form of burial should be performed.

Andy Lamb is in the final stages of his PhD research at the University of Leicester, examining later Iron Age mortuary rites in southern Britain and seeking to contextualise them against their broader insular and continental context. He has previously studied at the University of Edinburgh for an MSc in archaeology, and at Queen’s University for a BSc in archaeology and palaeoecology. His interests are primarily, but not limited to, La Tène period mortuary archaeology.

Featured Image: Reconstruction of the Welwyn Garden City Late Iron Age burial. Image © The Trustees of the British Museum.


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