I have written a lot about cremation as a commemorative technology in past societies. However, as they say, one image is worth a thousand cinerary urns!

Collecting Images

Over the last c. 10 years, I have been gradually collecting attempts by artists, artists/archaeologists, and archaeologists, to envision how open-air cremation looked and ‘felt’ in the human past. These images vary in style, perspective and at which point in the cremation ceremony they feel deserves capture.

The point is that these images are far more important than images reconstructing other kinds of mortuary practice revealed by archaeological endeavours. This is because past cremation is an alien phenomenon and  yet the term ‘cremation’ breeds familiarity.

You see, before the advent of gas-fired oven cremation as a modern technology of corpse disposal, cremation would have been an open-air ceremony in which the body, materials, artefacts, and perhaps sacrificed animals were translated, transformed by fire and disposed of in a variety of different material environments and locales. You won’t see this in the Western world; in most places it is illegal, in the UK on environmental grounds.

Before and after cremation, there may have been many complex procedures involving feasting, drinking, the exchange of things and performances to honour the dead. A range of spaces and ephemeral monuments might have been constructed. Cremation affected and involved the bodies and senses of the mourners and those obliged to participate. Cremation was not about burning the body, it was about transforming it through a series of procedures for which torching the cadaver was but one component.

Smouldering_pyre_05Feb2006Aaron’s Images of Cremation

The images we make underpin every aspect of how we think and connect to the traces of cremation practices we find in the archaeological record and weave them into stories about past life and death. I have even worked with artist Aaron Watson to create new ways of portraying cremation in the Anglo-Saxon period. I include two of Aaron’s fabulous images here, both the result of detailed discussions and dialogue with him about how I want people to think about cremation differently. They are published in my 2006 CUP book Death and Memory in Early Medieval Britain and in my 2007 co-edited book Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History vol. 14.

My work has involved trying to make people think differently about the osteological and the contextual data we find for cremation in the human past. I am not sure they are thinking differently yet, but if they are, these images, rather than my texts, are responsible. Here is not the place to sing the praises of Aaron’s work because I feel his images speak for themselves. I would be grateful to hear responses to these images; how they make people feel, how they make people think, whether they jar with expectations or confirm your thoughts on cremation in the human past and cremation today.

Niels Bach’s Image of Cremation

In this regard, I must share with you an image that has been circulating for a long time but escaped my attention because the image appears on a website that is dedicated to illustrating the life and death of an Iron Age bog-body from Denmark: Tollund Man. The image is by Niels Bach and forms part of the Tollund Man website. In the context of the website, the image serves a powerful purpose of showing the ‘normal’ mode of disposal of the dead at the time when Tollund Man lived, making transparent how his death was in stark contrast to that afforded to the majority of the population upon death. On its own, it provides the vivid, slightly gruesome but social and emotive dynamic of burning the dead.

Over to you dear readers for thoughts and responses…

Niels Bach’s vision of Iron Age cremation, from the website for Tollund Man