Having been to Leiden, I’ve posted about the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden’s mortuary archaeology, focusing on Egyptian, and Egyptomania, but also the citations to cremation practices in the displays of art and material culture in the Etruscan and Roman Italian/Turkish displays. I now want to comment on the one area of the museum where cremated human remains are on display: the Roman Netherlands gallery.
There are some amazing artefacts here, but among them, are some fabulous artefacts explicitly labelled as deriving from Roman-period cremation graves.
First up, there are a small but impressive range of gravestones on display.
Next, there is a display cabinet with a range of artefacts that constituted ‘gifts to the dead’.
Third was a fabulous bronze dish with the unique in-turned head of an eagle upon it. Perhaps originally a wash basin and dated to the 3rd century AD, it was found in 2017 at Rijnsburg. It contained the cremated remains (not displayed) of two adult males and one adult female, together with glass beads and bone combs of the 4th century.
The fourth and final dimension was a unique spectacular grave: the ‘Lady of Simpelveld’, which originally contained her cremated remains, jewellery, household goods and perfume bottles. The artefacts are displayed adjacent, together with a fraction (persumably not all) of her cremains (aged 35-50).
These were all found in a striking and well-publicised stone coffin with internal representations of household furnishings and the deceased represented banqueting. This is simply quite amazing to experience first-hand: a cremation deposit in an inhumation-sized receptacle. Is her afterlife depicted, or her lived-life? Or both?
So, once more we gain a sense that material cultures cite cremation practices indirectly, but the process and variability of cremation, deployed alongside other mortuary practices, is poorly displayed and explained in the museum environment. The small collection of the Lady’s cremains does little to contextualise the artefacts and stone coffin as elements of a complex, multi-staged, public performance of death.