Having reviewed my keynote lecture at the 1st CRUMBEL workshop in Brussels on Wednesday 16th October  (and check out my Twitter Moment here), I want to briefly review the subsequent 2 days of presentations and posters on different aspects of cremation practices, drawing on the latest ideas and research, including new experimental work and scientific applications.

Session 1: Experimental, Structural and Isotopic Studies of Burned Bones

Following an introduction by Christophe Snoeck, the first session was chaired by Ioannis Kontopoulos. It got off to a good start with a rich and detailed journey from forensic to interdisciplinary bioarchaeological investigations of cremation linked to group identity and life experiences by Tim Thompson (Teeside University). This was followed by a fascinating discussion of variability of fire rituals in prehistoric Aegean mortuary practices from ‘fumigation’ to ‘cremation’ by Sevi Triantaphyllou (Aristotle University of Thessaloniki), and then a consideration of the potential of histomorphometry for understanding early Anglo-Saxon cremation practices from Elsham by Kirsty Squires (Staffordshire University). Veteran and pioneer cremation-specialist and osteoarchaeologist Jacquieline McKinley (Wessex Archaeology) next presented, tackling the complexity of cremation practices and cremated human remains and the challenges of interpretation. The morning ended with Elizabetta Boaretto (Weizmann Institute of Science) presenting on the use of an Environmental SEM to evaluate the effects of burning on human bone. Together, the morning served to provide a detailed survey of current scientific applications and ongoing interpretive challenges in the study of past cremation practices.

Session 2 – Strontium isotopes and mapping

Chaired by Giacomo Capuzzo, the afternoon session comprised of a series of presentations evaluating the potentials and pitfalls of stable isotope analysis. Janet Montgomery (University of Durham), Jason Laffoon (Leiden University), John Pouncett (University of Oxford), Lisette Kootker (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) and Jane Evans (National Environment Isotope Facility, Nottingham) each presented valuable up-to-date evaluations of the challenges of the technique for interpreting burial data. These approaches will be of considerable merit to the CRUMBEL project who are applying stable isotope analyses to cremated human remains.

Session 3: Anthropological Archaeology

Chaired by Barbara Veselka, the morning of day two of the conference comprised of a further 5 presentations. They tackled the integration of scientific approaches with mortuary archaeology. Marie Louise Stig Sorensen (University of Cambridge) took us to the Middle Bronze Age of Europe and the complex shifts in relationships between the body and fire in death rituals. Initially, the cremated dead were treated in the grave in fashions akin to furnished inhumation graves: she emphasised a slow shift in ‘fashion’ as evidence of an evolving ontology of the body in death. David Goncalves (Archaeosciences Lab, Lisbon) presented  his latest work on burned skeletal remains, building a collection for comparative analysis to better understand the effects of heat. Then Christie Willis (University College London) presented a detailed evaluation of Neolithic cremation practices from mainland Britain, illustrating for the first time how widespread cremation was by the late Neolithic. Benoit Bertrand (University of Lille) next tackled age-at-death estimations using cementochronology. The morning ended with Dr Katharina Rebay-Salisbury (Austrain Academy of Sciences) considering the Middle Bronze Age-Early Iron Age in central Europe, exploring the Austrian cemetery of Inzersdorf to identify the lifeways, family structures and funerary rituals relating to motherhood and child rearing.

Session 4: Cultural and burial landscapes

The final session was chaired by Kevin Salesse and kicked off with Jim Leary (University of York) with a plea for a kinaesthetic archaeology. This approach to mobility as kinaesthetic was illustrated by Saturday Night Fever and John Travolta’s walk of cool. The applications to cremation practices were latent: mobility isn’t simply about ‘staying alive’:

Well, you can tell by the way I burn man and pork,

I’m a cremating man, no time to talk.

Fire’s high and women warm, I’ve been tending pyres,

since I was born

And now it’s alight, it’s okay

You can’t burn any other way

We can try to understand

Conflagration’s effect on man

Sorry, got distracted there. Back to the review.

Next was Femke Lippock (Leiden University) with a cogent and original evaluation of the relationship between cremation and inhumation in the Early Middle Ages. Then Stijn Heeren (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) gave an eye-opening evaluation of a pilot study looking at migration in the Early Middle Ages exploring material culture, settlement evidence and burial practice. Sasja van de Vaart-Verschoof tackled the interpretation of high-status Iron Age cremation burials from the Low Countries and their transformation of metalwork and varied monumentalities. Finally, Rick Schulting (University of Oxford) explored the varied evidence for earlier Neolithic cremation practices across Britain and Ireland, suggesting it was more common than previously anticipated.

In addition to these presentations, there were many cool posters to see. Notable for my period and interests were Lisa Monetti and Carolyn Rando’s (UCL) poster on Romano-British funerary practices and Tessi Loffelmann (University of Durham) et al’s poster presenting new stable isotope evidence for cremated remains from Heath Wood Ingleby for both animals and people.

In summary, this was a rich, varied and landmark conference. Mike Parker Pearson (UCL) guided the final discussion adeptly, and we left with a clear sense of the importance of both the CRUMBEL project and the evolving potential of studying cremation in the human past. Once again, this event was a credit to its organisers and the entire CRUMBEL team. It also had the best-ever conference pack items, not least of which was a CRUMBEL mug where the logo is only revealed upon the introduction of hot water! Conference packs don’t get better than this!IMG_20191016_235416