On Thursday 6th December I attended a one-day research workshop organised by a rising star of Dutch archaeology: Femke Lippock of the Archaeology Institute of the University of Leiden. Femke completed her Masters thesis on early medieval cremation practices and presented at the Grave Concerns conference: the Society for Medieval Archaeology annual conference held at Durham University in July 2018.
Femke is now a doctoral researcher on the Rural Riches project.
The setting for our discussions was illustrious. We met in the medieval fortified residence of the earls of Holland, subsequently expanded to be an early modern court house and prison: Gravensteen, at the heart of the historic city of Leiden.
Introducing the workshop, Femke set up the key challenges in studying early medieval cremation practices and some of the uncritical interpretive generalisations often applied to this aspect of mortuary practices by previous generations of researchers.
Subsequent to Femke’s introduction, the day comprised of extended discussions regarding theoretical approaches, field and scientific methods, and taphonomic issues. Femke had posed us with a series of key questions for which she, in her research, and scholars working across Europe and beyond, might wish to address. Themes discussed included:
- The place of cremation in the variability of the early medieval burial record;
- problematising interpretive models for early medieval cremation burials;
- long-term changes and short-term shifts in the frequency and character of cremation in relation to other mortuary practices;
- variability in early medieval cremation rituals including traces of different stages of funerals from pyre-sites to funerary architectures and monuments;
- spatial patterning in cremation burials in cemeteries, and wider landscape dimensions of cremation practices;
- post-depositional activities, including the re-opening of graves, in relation to cremation practices;
- problems and possibilities for existing and new scientific methodologies, including C14, stable isotope analysis and aDNA research;
- preservational/taphonomic factors affecting our interpretations;
- the role of analogies from historical, ethnographic, but also contemporary Western, cremation practices;
- the heritage of cremation: envisioning cremation in art, and displaying cremated remains in museum and heritage contexts.
- The interpretative and comparative significance of discussing cremation in the past and present.
Discussion hinged around six papers.
First, Rica Annaert explored early medieval cremation practices in Belgium, focusing on the soon-to-be published (next week!) cemetery of Broechem. 75 cremation burials were found on the Broechem site, alongside 438 inhumation graves (including 3 horse-burials), dating from the second half of the 5th century to the first half of the 7th century AD. Rica identified the rich range of evidence found from these cremation graves, including the striking anthracological evidence for the range of tree species deployed as pyre material. There is the potential of stable isotopic work to determine whether the cremation graves are those of immigrants to the region. Beyond Broechem, Rica explored other sites with evidence of cremation graves in the region of the River Scheldt in East Flanders, and their absence/rarity elsewhere in Belgium. Rica suggested the possibility that the cremation graves might be those of migrants from the trans-Rhine region, and noted the contrast in mortuary practices from Roman cremation burials in the locality, suggesting no straightforward continuity of practice.
Next, Raimund Masanz presented on early medieval cremation practices in the largely inhuming regions of southern Germany. He identified one ‘pure cremation’ cemetery near Regensburg, and a series of uses of cremation as a ‘minority rite’ alongside inhumation graves at many other sites. At Kleinlangheim, 18.7% of the graves were by cremation. A striking case he presented was of a 4-5 year-old girl inhumed in the 7th century at what was to become Frankfurt Cathedral, with rich grave-goods including bear claws (suggesting lain on a bear skin), and with the remains of a cremated boy.
He also presented the evidence from Kleinlangheim of a double grave; an inhumation to the north, and scattered burnt bones in the southern half of the grave! Therefore, both Rica and Raimund therefore presented case studies of communities where cremation, over the long term, was an indelible part of a broader mortuary programme.
Third, we had Dries Tys speaking as a representative of a new exciting Belgian research project exploring cremation practices from the Neolithic to the Early Middle Ages: CRUMBEL. Dries identified both the theoretical frameworks of exploring cremation that he will be applying to the Belgian data across periods, as well as the new methodologies they will be employing, including a new systematic programme of C14 dating. This will all have implications for the early medieval cremation graves addressed by Rica. Likewise, the project will be evaluating long-term patterns of the landscape contexts of cemeteries, which might shed new light also on the early medieval situation.
After lunch, Egge Knol from Groningen Museum presented his research on early medieval cremation burials as an integral part of the mortuary practices of Friesland. He presented a range of evidence from published and yet-to-be-published excavations, revealing the long-term deployment of cremation and inhumation together on 5th-9th century terps, including the site of Oosterbeintum.
I then gave my presentation about ongoing areas of debate and new questions we might ask of early Anglo-Saxon cremation practices, drawing on my past work, but also recognising the important contributions of many other researchers to the discussion, including Jacqui McKinley, Julie Bond, Kevin Leahy, Catherine Hills, Gareth Perry, Sam Lucy, Kirsty Squires and Chris Fern. I flagged up themes relating to the theory, method and heritage interpretation of cremation practices of the 5th-7th centuries AD in southern and eastern England, but I also addressed cremation in Middle Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Scandinavian contexts too, as well as cremation practices in early medieval Scotland and Ireland.
Femke then presented her research from across the Low Countries, exploring trends in the long-term use of cremation alongside inhumation graves from the 5th-9th centuries AD. From 72 sites, she was able to plot out the varying frequencies of cremation alongside inhumation. Her key argument was that we need to look at the local scale: at ‘communities of practice’ to better understand the use of cremation alongside inhumation graves. Her approach was framed around understanding the participants, the wider community, and the identity of the dead, in negotiating between choices in the mortuary programme. Hence, cremation was perhaps one dimension of many variables deployed among these communities. Femke also discussed the striking example of the Frankfurt double-grave, as addressed by Raimund, to illustrate her point.
Furthermore, she identified additional examples of cremation burials in inhumation-sized pits, and the comparable deposition of urns in inhumation and cremation graves. These are further instances of the relationality of cremation and inhumation among many early medieval communities.
As well as the speakers, there were a small specialist group of other delegates from the Netherlands and Belgium who brought many insightful questions and thoughts to the workshop. Hence, as well as discussions of individual papers, there were broader discussions throughout the day and over lunch.
Before the workshop closed, there was a further extended discussion about ‘where we go from here?’ We then had a fabulous evening meal at a French restaurant and an archaeological tour of Leiden the following morning.
Reflecting on this workshop, it is clear to me that further Europe-wide discussions of theories, methods and data for early medieval cremation practices is required. Indeed, despite attending many valuable conference sessions incorporating discussions of cremation practices, including one I co-organised resulting in an edited book, I’ve waited 20 years for someone to have the vision to organise a workshop on this topic. I learned a great deal and have many new ideas to consider. So congratulations and thanks go from me to Femke for the invitation and her professional organisation of the event. I’d also like to thank her, as well as to the other speakers and participants for the hospitality and high-quality papers and good-willed debates. Also, everyone politely endured my Brexit rants! I hope to have further discussions on our areas of mutual research interests in the future with my colleagues from Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and farther afield.