At the Leiden workshop on early medieval cremation practices, one of the key arguments I made in my talk related to the many challenges we face in displaying cremated remains in museums. Museums in NW Europe frequently contain many artefacts from cremation graves from different periods and places, including a wide range of cinerary urns.
Yet all too commonly the proveniences of these artefacts is inadequately explained. How and why did these material cultures/vessels/structures get selected (or made especially) for funerals? Did urns and other containers serve as receptacles for ashes (cremains), or did they contain food or drink to accompany the remains of the dead? Or were they for perfumes and oils, or other substances? Or did they serve as token additions to graves as fragments, while the remains were deposited elsewhere? Moreover, the processes and variability in cremation practices, including the significance of cinerary urns and other burial structures and monuments, are rarely explained to museum visitors.
Hence, there remains considerable potential, building on my 2016 book chapter addressing this topic, to tackle the heritage interpretation of cremation in the human past in innovative fashions, both on museums and in popular publication venues.
Therefore, it was striking that my visit to Leiden gave me the opportunity to look around the RMO and recognise many instances of material cultures created specifically for funerary contexts in past societies associated with cremation. These included displays of funerary artefacts with few or no displays of cremated human material or any sense of what was entailed in cremation ceremonies and tomb-uses.
One striking example of this theme is the collection of Villanovan (9th-7th-centuries BC: central Italian Iron Age) cinerary urns, which seem to have been made especially for the funerals. There was also a Bronze vessel, I assume perhaps also with a cinerary function. The accompanying text explains the association with cremation practices, but little more.
These are juxtaposed at the RMO with artefacts from the subsequent Etruscan period. There is a rich collection of Etruscan funerary artefacts: alabaster cinerary urns of the 2nd century BC, with lids depicting the deceased reclining at a banquet over chests representing a range of scenes created to honour the dead (although these are not discussed in the accompanying texts).
These two successive central Italian examples might be considered citations to, rather than displays about, cremation practices. No ashes are shown – presumably these artefacts have long been disassociated from them. The vivid choice of mounting sculptural portraits of the deceased by the Etruscans is a striking example of how post-cremation treatments of ‘cremains’ can be afforded elaborate treatments that constituted a funerary identity for the dead as ‘ancestors’ in their tombs. In the museum context, however, they are citations to, rather than direct displays of, past cremation practices.