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National Trust, Erddig’s dovecote, decked out with calling doves for Christmas 2015
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Urn with two birds from Newark: early Anglo-Saxon

Archaeologists find it a real struggle to conceptualise ‘columbaria’ past and present. I define them here as collective above-ground architectures built to house cinerary urns in discrete niches and other settings and spaces.

They are well attested in the material record of the ancient Mediterranean world; the use of caves and communal tombs, sometimes housing a mixture of inhumation graves and cremation deposits. Yet in northern Europe there is a standard assumption that they are absent: there is no discussion of their archaeological signature and the term is not used by prehistorians it seems.

They are not as common in the modern world too, situated in the grounds of many crematorium. I would class the recently discussed Long Barrow at All Cannings as an example.

Yet when archaeologists often talk about ‘cremation’ they usually mean it as a crude shorthand for ‘cremation burial’ or ‘cremation grave’. The implicit assumption is that ‘cremains’ are for interment below the surface of the earth. Yet the possibility that in past cultures, many or all cremated remains might be kept above ground following retrieval from cremation pyres is rarely entertained. Yet it was likely a very common practice, not only cremains kept in houses but also in special repositories within funerary. Yet again and again, archaeologists finding structures on cemeteries immediately jump to other interpretations; preparation areas for the cadaver, cult houses for ancestral rites, hearse-houses. Hardly ever do we think ‘columbaria’.

Columbarium comes from the Latin for ‘pigeon house’. Is there a connection between the architectural collection of cremains and birds? In the modern world, the symbolic and material links between birds and cremation is widespread and manifold as discussed in my post about cremation here.

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Metal and live bird perch on a memorial in a Helsinki cemetery

In the ancient world, the specific association of cremation with above ground structures are less carefully worked out and considered by historians and archaeologists. Cremation was frequently not explicitly linked only to fiery transformation but also an aerial ascent of smoke that prompts allusions to avian flight. The release of birds and the killing of birds are documented dimensions of ancient cremation practices. The nesting activities of birds and the storage of cremains in rafters and roofs of dwellings, granaries and other structures is a further possible connection. Equally, any kind of above-ground structure in a cemetery and raised over pyres or cremains – a barrow, posts, plantings and trees, standing stones, stone settings, grave-houses etc – might attract birdlife nesting, roosting or simply perching. Deliberately and indirectly, birds need to be considered elements of cremation ceremonies and columbaria past and present.

Archaeologists need to pay careful attention to the aerial and the avian when considering cremation in past societies. Specifically, the association of cremation, birds and architecture might be more intertwined than we usually suspect.

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