Back just before I started work at the University of Chester in 2008, I was asked to contribute to a new book on The Analysis of Burnt Human Remains by co-editors Christopher W. Schmidt (University of Indianapolis) and Steven A. Symes (Mercyhurst College). 7 years later and the second edition has just been released.
This is a first experience of being in a second edition of an edited collection: I guess someone must have bought the first edition!
The results seem very positive to me, although I have yet to scrutinise every chapter in depth. It is a very different book made of 23 flaming contributions. This is because 9 are completely new chapters that do not appear in the 2008 original book.
The original and remaining 14 look good too. So to speak, they have risen from their own ashes and are born again!
This makes the purchase and ownership of this book essential for everyone in the entire universe, alive or dead, not to mention those yet to be born. It can be bought here and comes with a very happy charred skull grinning on its cover.
Towards an Archaeology of Cremation
My original 2008 chapter ‘Towards an Archaeology of Cremation’ has been re-hashed somewhat, with a few revisions to my argument here and there, especially as some points made have been addressed in the literature of the last 7 years. I have also added a modest selection of additional citations to interesting news studies.
My chapter was an attempt to look at the big picture and situate osteological and forensic work on burnt human remains in relation to wider studies of the history, anthropology, sociology and archaeology of death. This is an attempt to be a work of theoretical and thematic synthesis. Although I was savy enough not to pompously call the chapter ‘Rethinking the Archaeology of Cremation’, I might as well have done, since the actually title must be annoying for other researchers who have been doing the archaeology of cremation for decades. Still, I did want to keep the clear evangelistic tone of the original, even if it is a tad cringe-worthy to read now.
This is because my key point in the chapter still stands and is encapsulated by the title. I happen to know that the original chapter was read and liked by some. So I hope the new version is also read and its arguments are taken and adopted, rejected and defamed, debated and argued over or simply set fire to. The archaeology of cremation is far more than the study of burnt human remains.
This perspective has driven much of my ongoing research, some of which has relied on the osteological work of others, but far more has been about artefacts, pots, cemetery space, landscape location associated with the cremated dead. More work still has been about the dynamic relationships between cremation, other uses of fire in death rituals, and other disposal methods.
So much of the work I’m doing on the archaeology of cremation – looking at burials, but also memorials, architectures and landscapes of the early medieval period (Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and all that) and the post-medieval and contemporary world (19th to 21st centuries), has little to do with the technologies and rituals of reducing cadavers to ashes per se.
For the 2008 chapter and its 2005 re-boot, I deliberately chose a period I make no claims of expertise over. Hence, the key case study utilises the late Iron Age British cremation cemetery of Westhampnett (West Sussex), excavations and analysis by Wessex Archaeology (Andrew Fitzpatrick with osteological work by Jackie McKinley) in an attempt to illustrate my argument. The core of the chapter is therefore an homage to the work of others.
The Bigger Picture
This is a good time for work on the archaeology of cremation. I feel privileged to have contributed to the ace collection on the archaeology of cremation now out and available with University of Arizona Press called ‘Transformation by Fire‘. I discuss the Amerind Seminar leading up to this book here and the book itself here.
There are more studies to come! Prof. Tim Thompson has edited a book with Oxbow called The Archaeology of Cremation which I’m looking forward to immensely. His book has distinctive western European and South American foci among its offerings.
Another book is about to enter production, hopefully with CUP. Based on a Helsinki EAA session discussed here and here, I am co-editing a new collection on archaeological approaches to cremation, focusing on European case studies but with a scatter of studies from elsewhere, as discussed here.
What all this amounts to is an exciting new era for the study of cremation in archaeology. Studying and debating cremation in the human past and present now has a good pedigree, but there remains much to do. In a new era for the study of cremation by archaeologists in interdisciplinary and diverse ways, using new discoveries and interesting and complex data-sets, cremation is no longer side-lined in the archaeology of death.