Before the 19th century re-emergence of modern indoor cremation, burning the dead was widely practiced across NW Europe, Scandinavia, Britain and Ireland in the Early Middle Ages (c. 5th-11th centuries AD). Yet, cremation has tended to be afforded limited treatment in accounts of death, burial and commemoration in this period, sometimes still over-simplistically characterised as ‘early in date’, ‘pagan’ and ‘Germanic’ (but sometimes ‘Norse’, ‘Celtic’ or ‘Slavic’). The relationship with other disposal methods is often represented as one of opposition, with cremation seen as abandoned following church sanctions against the practice. Yet traces of cremation practices can be found alongside inhumation graves and other dimensions of death ritual in varying forms and frequencies over large tracts of the former Roman Empire and beyond its borders. Cremation constitutes an important and diverse archaeological component in our investigation of the death ways of early medieval people.

Presenting our developing interdisciplinary theories, refined field and lab-based methods, and a wide range of fresh discoveries, this new book project seeks for the first time to explore the rich and varied evidence for early medieval cremation practices within the context of new scientific applications and contextual analyses. Where, how and why did early medieval communities cremate all or some of their dead?

Co-edited by Femke Lippok (Leiden University) and Howard Williams (University of Chester), the book will draw together the latest research and thinking on early medieval cremation practices and aims to be of interest to students and scholars of medieval archaeology and history, but also global research in the archaeology, bioarchaeology and anthropology of mortuary practices, and death studies more broadly.

Notably, the structure and style of this book will represent a departure from the norm. As well as a co-authored introduction, each chapter will constitute an interview between the editors and key researchers, supported by a series of fact boxes highlighting key ideas, methods and techniques, sites, graves and discoveries. This should help us create an accessible yet rigorous and up-to-date resource that differs from the standard edited collection.

Rica Annaert mid-interview!
Femke conducted the interview with Rica while Howard pitched in additional questions

The project idea stems from a Leiden workshop organised by Femke in December 2018 entitled The Pyre and the Grave: Early Medieval Cremation Explored. After months of planning and scheming, the collation of chapters has begun! The inaugural event was an interview with Belgian archaeologist Rica Annaert, Senior Heritage Researcher with the Flemish Heritage Agency, regarding her doctoral research on the Broechem ‘mixed-rite’ cemetery and the broader Scheldt area. We are delighted that Rica, one of 2018 workshop contributors, was our first interviewee!

In coming months, Femke and Howard will be interviewing a range of researchers from across Europe, exploring not only cremation but its relationship with other mortuary and commemorative practices, thus affording new perspectives and insights into early medieval society and belief centring on the dead body’s fiery transformation.

Publications

For context, Femke and Howard share research interests in early medieval cremation. Femke has just published a brand-new study on early medieval cremation practices drawing upon her Master’s research:

Lippok, F.E. 2020. The pyre and the grave: early medieval cremation burials in the Netherlands, the German Rhineland and Belgium, World Archaeology, 52:1, 147-162, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/00438243.2020.1769297.

Meanwhile, Howard’s more recent publications on early medieval cremation practices include:

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.

Meyers Emery, K. and Williams, H. 2018. A place to rest your (burnt) bones? Mortuary houses in early Anglo-Saxon England, Archaeological Journal 175(1): 55–86. https://doi.org/10.1080/00665983.2017.1366704.

Wessman, A. and Williams, H. 2017. Building for the cremated dead, in J.I. Cerezo-Román, A. Wessman and H. Williams (eds) Cremation and the Archaeology of Death, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 177–98

Williams, H. 2016. Ethnographies for early Anglo-Saxon cremation, in I. Riddler, L. Keys, and J. Soulat (eds) Le témoignage de la culture matérielle: mélanges offerts au Professeur Vera Evison/ The Evidence of Material Culture: Studies in Honour of Professor Vera Evison, Europe Médiévale 10, Autun: Éditions Mergoil, pp. 139–54 http://hdl.handle.net/10034/620242

Williams, H. 2015. Death, hair and memory: cremation’s heterogeneity in early Anglo-Saxon England, Analecta Archaeologica Ressoviensia, 10, 29–76. http://www.archeologia.ur.edu.pl/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/AAR10_Williams_np.pdf

Williams, H. 2014. A well-urned rest: cremation and inhumation in early Anglo-Saxon England, in I. Kuijt, C.P. Quinn and G. Cooney (eds) Transformation by Fire: The Archaeology of Cremation in Cultural Context, Tucson: University of Arizona Press, pp. 93-118. http://www.uapress.arizona.edu/Books/bid2504.htm http://hdl.handle.net/10034/555812

Williams, H. 2013. Death, memory and material culture: catalytic commemoration and the cremated dead, in S. Tarlow and L. Nilsson Stutz (eds) The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Death and Burial, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 195-208. http://hdl.handle.net/10034/336963