I’ve just returned from the 1st Crumbel Workshop on ‘Cremation, Urns and Mobility – Population Dynamics in Belgium’ which took place 16-18th October 2019 in Brussels where I presented the keynote lecture: ‘The Cremation Sensation’ to an audience of c. 70 delegates and University students.

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I’ve just created a Twitter ‘Moment’ for the conference (although Twitter no longer allows individual tweets to be added directly to Moments so I may have missed some relevant tweets). I hope it serves to memorialise a stimulating and far-ranging event on the innovative new research ongoing into cremation in the human past by archaeologists and archaeological scientists.

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Here’s my keynote title and abstract:

The Cremation Sensation

Howard Williams

‘There had been almost no changes in how the dead were burned from the earliest times until the 1870s.’

In this stark quote regarding the rise of modern cremation from Thomas W. Lacquer’s 2015 book The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains, we are presented with a simple fracture between cremation’s prehistory and early history, and its rise as the predominant disposal method of the Global West. A primitive timeless open-air ‘rite’ survived in ‘peaceful coexistence’ with other disposal methods, shifting in and out of fashion up until Christian conversion in the Carolingian era. It emerged again in the 19th century afresh and disconnected from its ancient predecessor-practices, a modern scientific process inspired by steel-making technology.

As an archaeologist, I feel it beggars belief that the global complexity and rich variability of fiery transformations in mortuary practices can be readily circumvented, thus reducing the versatile synergies of death and fire to a simple opposition. In this optimistic presentation I wish to emphasise the unfolding potential of new stories which can be told about the material cultures, monuments and spaces of cremation rituals past and present, driven by ongoing discoveries, fresh perspectives and new scientific applications. As well as fine-grained contextual analyses, perhaps the time is right to revisit broad multi-period narratives for burning the dead as a core dimension of the human engagements with mortality from prehistory to the 21st century. If so, then the sensorial and somatic sensation of cremation will form a key part of such narratives.

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Professor Dries Tys introduces me as the CRUMBEL keynote. (Image thanks to Dr Katharina Rebay-Salisbury)

I was suggesting that archaeologists’ contributions to the study of cremation past and present are being largely ignored, allowing inaccurate, misleading and out-dated narratives regarding the relationships between fire and the body in the story of human mortality to be perpetuated. I argued that the ‘big story’ of cremation is something that archaeologists have done much to address over recent decades, but we are now in the position to write a narrative about the complexity and variability of cremation and its relationship with other disposal rites from the Palaeolithic to the present. To do this we must jettison seeing cremation as primarily technology, cosmology or ontology, but focus on the many practical and historical situations in which cremation is deployed.

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Me talking about cremations past (Image courtesy of Dr Kevin Salesse)

My talk focused on 4 dimensions, drawing on my past and recent research to offer case studies for how we can write an archaeology of cremation:

  • cremation past;
  • cremation present;
  • cremation displayed and envisioned;
  • cremation imagined.

For cremations past, I presented examples about how a cremation-focused view shifts our interpretive frameworks and allows novel readings of how mortuary practices operated and gained significance in past societies. I then tackled the need for archaeologists to explore further their material and spatial-focused insights into cremation since the 1870s up to today. In structuring the talk this way, I also argued that the ‘archaeology of cremation’ is not only about reconstructing and interpreting the fiery treatment of the dead in past and contemporary environments – including the cremated human and animal remains, material cultures, architectures, monuments and landscapes. It is also about critically engaging with how we write about and visualise cremation practices in museums, heritage sites and other public-facing venues. It is also about tackling the widespread popular perceptions and misconceptions of cremation, from Game of Thrones to Vikings and The Walking Dead, inspired and (sometimes) directly informed by archaeological evidence and visions of past societies, that pervade our popular culture. This will enable us to write narratives that have wider import for our future.

Many of these topics I’ve covered on this Archaeodeath blog, but I additionally incorporated references to past publications into the Powerpoint to help those interested find further discussions of the issues I raised.

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It was a great honour and privilege to be invited to the conference and speak alongside such highly respected researchers and within the context of an exciting and innovative project integrating a host of scientific and social approaches to cremation practices focusing on Belgium. It was even more exciting still to be invited to be event’s keynote. I’d expected a small workshop format, but it was really a full-blown conference: the first cremation-dedicated event I’ve been aware of in over a decade!

I was introduced as a rock ‘n’ roll professor. While I’m not too sure about that, it did inspire me to channel my inner Guns N’ Roses, which amused me if no one else!

Welcome to the CRUMBEL

They’ve got fun and games;

all the cremation’s you want,

even urns with names

they are the people that can find the graves you need

aDNA and isotopes,

every old disease

CRUMBEL, welcome to the CRUMBEL

watch it bring you to your knees!

I’ve made new contacts and learned much during the conference, and I will review the 2 days of papers in a separate post. But I’d like to finish here by thanking the organisers and the CRUMBEL project team for making me and all the other delegates and speakers so welcome in Brussels.