Visit the British Museum and you can witness Britain’s most-viewed cremation burial.

Contemporary ash-scattering can be witnessed at many beauty spots and archaeological sites, as well as within crematoria gardens of remembrance. Meanwhile, archaeologically derived human remains – including those resulting from prehistoric and early historic cremation practices – are widely displayed still in many UK museums. So the public can see cremated remains – ancient and modern – at many places in today’s landscape. One place stands out, however. The British Museum gets over 6 million people through its doors every year and it presents one of the most exceptionally rich proto-historic cremation graves ever found. Therefore, unquestionably the display of the wealthy late Iron Age cremation burial excavated in 1965 at Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire, is unquestionably the most-viewed cremation burial in Britain, quite possibly in the world. It also tells us of an important stage in the island’s story.

Writing in the journal Archaeologia, Ian Stead in 1967 surveyed other similar late Iron Age (La Tene III) cremation graves in south-east Britain. They share in lacking surviving burial mounds (if they ever had them) and most were discovered by antiquarian interventions and have been poorly recorded. If uncovered more recently, they were almost exclusively retrieved in rushed conditions, as with the 1952 discovery at Snailwell, Cambridgeshire, where archaeologists were given a single day to recover the contents of a rich cremation grave.

Stead's plan
The grave-plan from Stead 1967

Well-recorded if also disturbed and then dug in haste, the Welwyn Garden City grave is traditionally considered part of the wealthy ‘Welwyn-type burials’, in turn high-status elements of ‘Aylesford-Swarling Culture’ of the first-century BC. They reveal close connections between south-east Britain with northern France in the century between the Caesarian and Claudian invasions. They are exceptional, set against a background of Iron Age mortuary practices comprising excarnation, unfurnished/poorly furnished inhumation and cremation burials.

As with other graves of its type, the Welwyn Garden City grave was recovered during the construction of two gas-pipe trenches during the building of the Panshangar Estate. The newly laid road was dug up to explore the full extent of the burial. The pit was over 10 ft by 7ft at point of discovery, tapering to just over 8ft by just under 5ft. and filled with a fine grey sandy earth which included charred wood, perhaps from the pyre.

Illustration from Stead 1967

The cremated bones were arranged in a ‘simple heap’ at the centre of the northern end of the grave without a container. Associated with the bones were glass gaming-pieces towards the edge of the grave. The grave may have actually been divided in two by a wooden object with ornamental bronze-headed studs. To the south, a host of grave-goods were huddled together.

Despite the damage of the pipe-line trench, all but four of the 36 vessels could be attributed to a precise position. Vessels comprised 5 amphorae, a 15 burnished grey ware vessels, 8 grey wares with burnished bands, 5 burnished buff wares, 5 pattern burnished buff wares, and three imported vessels. There were also 24 glass gaming pieces, a silver cup, a bronze strainer, a bronze dish, a bronze toilet implement, dome-headed studs, distorted bronze fragments, two wooden vessels with bronze fittings, two wooden boards with iron fittings, a triangular iron knife, a wooden object with iron attachments and a straw mat. Among the cremated remains (which couldn’t be aged or sexed) were 6 terminal phalanges of a bear, constituting one paw and one finger as a minimum.

The Welwyn Garden City grave on display in the British Museum today

Ian Stead (1967) regarded these wealthy cremation burials as the ‘graves of Celts impressed and enriched by their contact with Roman merchants’. Yet their allusions to feasting and perhaps the occupants’ identity are not simply evidence of links to Roman merchants. Instead, perhaps they reflect diplomatic contacts between client kings and the Roman Republic, as explored by John Creighton and Andrew Fitzpatrick (2007).

Whatever the precise scenario behind their deposition, these graves reveal the survivors possessed far-reaching socio-political networks. The emphasis on feasting and the fiery transformation of the dead is clear: elements of protracted and complex mortuary processes. In the British Museum, the grave therefore has an unprecedented potential for exploring the hierarchical and complex nature of Iron Age societies prior to the Claudian conquest of Britain via the archaeological evidence of death rituals.

In terms of the display of the dead, this exhibit has a further important function: it is unique in offering an incomparable number of visitors engagement with, and understanding of, cremation practices past and present. However, as outlined in my 2016 book chapter (Williams 2016), many museums, including the BM, don’t fully appreciate what they have to offer the public in this regard. This is because cremation graves from prehistory and early history, through museum display, accrue an enduring significance in the context of contemporary death-ways. While we cannot gaze upon the faces of dead people via cremation burials, in stark contrast with the intimate encounters with bog bodies once can experience at the British Museum via the remains of Lindow Man, this cremation burial has an important role in dialogues regarding mortality in early 21st-century Britain. Cremation has long been the dominant disposal method in the UK. Hence, tackling themes of fire and feasting, there are ways of exploring the stories of these graves in just as innovative ways as we can for mummies and inhumation graves, offering stark comparisons and contrasts between Iron Age death ways and contemporary obsequies.

Fitzpatrick, A. 2007. The fire, the feast and the funeral. Late Iron Age burial rites in southern England, in V. Kruta and G. Leman-Delerive (eds) Feux des morts, foyers des vivants. Les rites et symboles du feu dans les tombes de l’Âge du Fer et de l’époque romaine, Lille, Revue de Nord Hors série. Collection Art et Archéologie 11, 123-42.

Stead, I.M. 1967. A La Tene III burial at Welwyn Garden City, Archaeologia 101: 1-62.

Williams, H. 2016. Firing the imagination: cremation in the modern museum, in H. Williams and M. Giles (eds) Archaeologists and the Dead: Mortuary Archaeology in Contemporary Society, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 293–332.