Bronze Age cairn, South-west Finland
Modern cremation memorials, Heitaniemi cemetery, Helsinki

Finland 2012 – Cremation all Round!

In Sept 2012 I attended the European Association for Archaeologist’s 18th annual conference in Helsinki. I had a great time attending a session on death and burial in post-medieval Europe as well as organising my own session (see below).

Together with Liv Nilsson Stutz, I re-explored Helsinki’s famous Hietaniemi cemetery replete with gorgeous graves from the nineteenth century to the present day. Also in this cemetery are many cremation memorials of the twentieth and early twenty-first century, showing a snap-shot of the evolving strategies by which we memorialise the cremated dead in various miniaturised and collective media, some ways resembling traditional graves, others not.

There was also a great reception, party and lots of drinking and conversation that involved some gossip but also much scheming. This scheming is an essential component of conferences.

Moss on rocks, Finland

I also had the opportunity to visit my good friends Anna and Stefan and meet their beautiful children and eat great food. En route there, I was taken to some fabulous hill-top cairns of the Finnish Bronze Age. Equally amazing were the fabulous mosses on the rocks. I like moss.

I like EAA conferences; not everyone does. I have been to those in Goteborg, Sweden, 1998 and Bournemouth, UK, 1999. I then had a break and went to the 2005 conference in Cork, Republic of Ireland,  the 2006 meeting in Krakow, Poland and the 2008 Mediterranean EAA in Malta. The 19th annual conference is next week in Pilsen, Czech Republic but, to date, Helsinki was my favourite EAA for atmosphere and conversation, as well as the interesting papers I heard presented.

The Book – Cremation in European Archaeology

I am now co-editing a book based on the day-long session I organised at the Helsinki conference. The session was co-organised with fellow cremation-obsessives Jessica Cerezo-Roman and Anna Wessman. Anna and Jessica are co-editing the book with me, provisionally entitled ‘Cremation in European Archaeology’.

The paper submissions have been through peer-review and it looks as if it will be an edited volume of 10 chapters exploring cremation practices from many regions of  Europe and 2 comparative studies from North America. Our introduction aims to explore themes in the archaeology of cremation applied throughout Europe including new theories, methods and techniques. We are hoping the book will be a sizzling hot best-seller, out in bookshops by 2015.

Same cemetery from Blekinge, Sweden (after Svanberg 2003).

Cremation Architectures

It would be premature to list and discuss all of the book chapters. However, I can tell you about my co-authored contribution with Anna Wessman. Anna and I have been discussing cremation for a couple of years, and the conference, and the book, seemed like a perfect opportunity for a collaboration.

Now cremation is associated with all manner of different monuments and architectures in mid to late first millennium AD Europe, including mounds, cairns, stone-settings of various different shapes. How do we explain this variability? And what of occasions where no discrete monuments survive at all? Was this deliberate? What kind of fragile and modest above-ground structures marked cemeteries and graves? Moreover, how was cremation itself, the burning of the body, about creating an ephemeral monument (the pyre) for brief display and public destruction?

Blekinge Iron Age cemetery – ship-settings and standing stones, most associated with the cremated dead.

So we decided to look again at the issue of cremation architectures: both their permanence and their ephemerality. To do this, we are exploring how cremation is fundamentally about building ephemeral things, and creating cumulative monuments from cremains and other materials. In this way, we suggest cremation is about staged tempos of commemoration involving building and destroying things in equal measure. Understanding the memorials associated with cremation is about issues of scale and issues of temporality.

To illustrate this argument, we draw on two case studies. The first is from early Anglo-Saxon England, where were reinvestigate the subtle traces of mounds, post-built structures and post-holes from cremation and mixed-rite cemeteries. The second is the ‘cremation cemeteries on the level ground’, a phenomenon that Anna has investigated in her 2010 doctoral thesis at the University of Helsinki. Through both case studies, we investigation how cremation ceremonies in the mid- to late first millennium AD concerning the making and unmaking, building and rebuilding of the dead.