In 2013, I blogged about the ways we visualise cremation in the human past are often woefully inadequate. Good-quality artist’s reconstructions are few, but when they do get used, they can speak more than a thousand words about the complex sequence and spectacle of cremation in the human past.

Subseuently, I’ve taken this further and both blogged and published about how we display cremated human remains in museums (as here for the BM). I tackled this also in a 2016 book chapter.

Also, I have looked into the ways TV shows and films portray open-air cremation practices (as for Vikings and Game of Thrones). These popular representations are striking and sometimes have accurate elements, but they often simplify and mislead audiences about cremation’s past.

Thinking about new ways to convey past funerals, and particularly about concepts and ideas I’ve used to study them, can be greatly enhanced by visual medial. I’ve long aspired to use images better to understand cremation practices. This requires careful and appropriate images informed by archaeological evidence. In short, understanding cremation cannot be achhieved with texts. Perhaps in future it requires us to move beyond texts and images too, including 3D animation?

Anyway, one of the chapters in my 2019 co-edited book The Public Archaeology of Death was composed with Dr Aaron Watson. Titled ‘Envisioning Cremation: Art and Archaeology’, it considered the ways in which we visualise cremation from the Early Middle Ages focusing on early Anglo-Saxon England.

Inspired by that, my latest Archaeodeath YouTube video explores the inadequate and misleading images of early Anglo-Saxon cremation. It then presents examples of fresh approaches, including the cremation images created by Aaron. The chapter incorporates a discussion of how we need to experiment with images in new ways regarding the interpretation of mortuary rituals involving fiery transformations. This applies both to academic writing and public engagement.

A few additional points. While I love Aaron’s work, and I’m a fan of Kelvin Wilson’s image (which is on the cover of my co-edited 2017 book Cremation and the Archaeology of Death, I feel there are many further media and styles which might be deployed, and fresh perspectives and dimensions of past cremation practices which might be explored, in future envisionings of cremation in the human past. Hence,

  1. I’m always interested in new art visualising cremation and fire rituals from the human past: if you come across anything you think I’ll be interested in, please do let me know.
  2. I’m keen to collaborate with artists to create new visualisations of cremation, particularly for early Anglo-Saxon and Viking funerals. If you’d like to get in touch about this, my email is: howard.williams@chester.ac.uk.

For details of my publications, click here.

To buy the book or order it for your institution’s library: check it out here.

Watson, A. and Williams, H. 2019. Envisioning cremation: art and archaeology, in H. Williams, B. Wills-Eve and J. Osborne (eds) The Public Archaeology of Death, Sheffield: Equinox, pp. 113–132.

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