Bones of the Bronze Age

15 August 2010

Interview with

Dr Jo Appleby, University of Cambridge

Diana -   A slightly grizzly start to this week as we're looking at Bronze Age cremations. During the period which spans roughly from 2000 to 700 BC in the UK, there was a fashion for cremating the dead.  Jo Appleby, a postdoctoral researcher in the University of Cambridge's Archaeology Department, has been studying these very early cremation burials, plus, some which appear even earlier -  and the information that can be drawn from them is quite surprising.  Listeners of a sensitive nature are warned that this interview does contain some graphic descriptions of what happens during the cremation process.

Jo -   I'm looking at the changing nature of burial practices from the mid-3rd millennium BC through to the end of the Bronze Age, and trying to figure out the changes in the ways that people approach death and burial over that time.  In particular I'm looking at the practice of cremation.

Diana -   And what kind of changes do you see happening?

Ancient cremated human remainsJo -   Well, during the beginning of the early Bronze Age, we see the first introduction of cremation as a burial ritual.  This is at first, quite sporadic and only occurs occasionally.  Then as the Bronze Age progresses, it becomes the most common form of burial.  Then eventually, towards the end of the Bronze Age, we find that formal burial rites almost disappear from the landscape, and we find occasional burials, but the majority of the human remains we find are as isolated deposits within settlements.  In fact, we're not very sure what was happening to the majority of dead individuals at all.

Diana -   And do you have any ideas as to why these changes were occurring?

Jo -   Well, that's the interesting thing, and is one of the things that my research is aiming to investigate, because burial is quite a good way of looking into people's minds in the past.  Death is a very stressful sort of time, and therefore, when it comes to funerary behaviour, you don't just do anything - You want to do something that shows your respect for the person that has just died and it has to fit in with your own cultural beliefs.  So obviously, bringing in a dramatic change like going from burying the body as an inhumation burial to setting fire to it, is something quite dramatic.  In the past, it's often being interpreted as a change of people, a new kind of people coming in, but actually it's quite difficult to interpret the beginning of cremation straightforwardly in this way because we don't have the evidence that that was occurring, so instead we see this as a change of belief.

Part of what I'm trying to do is to tease out precisely what's actually occurring within the cremation rituals, so not just saying were they burning the body or were they not burning the body, but looking at what they were doing when they weren't burning the body, and what they were actually doing when they were burning the body and trying to figure out what the similarities and differences that were occurring.

Diana -   So you've been working on a Bronze Age site.  Can you tell me a bit about that site?

Jo -   I've been working on a site from Erith out in the Fens, which was actually excavated by the Cambridge Archaeological Unit and I've been collaborating with Natasha Dodwell of the Archaeological Unit on this.  The site originally consisted of a ring ditch with a central inhumation - this was constructed in the early Bronze Age, and then this later became the focus for a middle Bronze Age cremation cemetery, where over 30 individuals were buried.

Diana -   And we've got a couple of examples here.  Let's look at this big tray -  it's full of quite a large collection of small bits of what look like quite burned bone.  What do we actually have here?

Jo -   We do indeed have a large trayful of quite small, burned bits of bone.  But what this can do is it can actually tell us a little bit about what was going on.  Despite the fact that these bones, to the untrained eye, look as though they could be pretty much anything, they are actually identifiable, if you know what you are talking about.  For example, I can pick out a piece here which is about 5 centimetres long and quite warped, and doesn't look like much of anything, but I can tell you that's probably part of a human tibia -  that's one of the lower leg bones.  As well as being able to identify that, I can tell you that the bones in this particular tray are of adult size, so we're dealing with an adult individual.  In fact, this individual has been identified as male.  But there are also some infant bones buried in with this individual. (I don't think in this particular tray, because the bones are sorted by size, and these are not smaller obviously).  So we can determine the age and the sex of individuals, and whether we're dealing with one person in the burial, or whether we're dealing with more than one person - and that actually occurs relatively frequently. 

In addition to that, I can tell you something about the temperature at which the bones were burned.  The majority of the bones in this tray are actually white.  You might think that the skeleton is naturally white, but in fact, it's generally speaking, more of a creamy, yellow colour when we excavate human skeletons.  This white colour tells me that the bones have been heated to more than 600 degrees.  That's a high temperature, and very efficient cremation practise that we're seeing.  In addition, the bones are quite warped and they're quite fractured, and that's to do with the effects that the heat has on the organic component of the bone.  So - bone is a matrix made out of organic proteins and an inorganic material that gives it great strength.  Obviously, when you cremate bone, then you lose the organic component, but you retain the inorganic component.  When the organic component is present, the burning up of that, causes the bone to warp and change shape.  So, from the fact that this bone is warped, I can tell that this individual was burned when bone was still fresh, as opposed to them having dug up some old bones from somewhere, and then set fire to them.

Diana -   Do you see the same sort of things happening across all the burials?

Jo -   This kind of practice,  I would say, was typical for a burial of this period.  In the middle Bronze Age cremation was typically quite efficient,  it was typically involving individuals soon after death and generally speaking, it was only one person being burned at a time.  In the earlier period, it was more variable, and in the later period, it was quite weird -  and we're not totally sure what was happening.

Diana -   Okay.  We've got another tray here of a collection of what looks like five bags of all sorts of different bits of bone.  So, what's going on here?  What's different with this one?

Jo -   Well these are just some pieces that I picked out to illustrate some of the things that we can see when we look at bone.  Here, I've got a bag with a piece of tooth in it and this is in fact a human molar.  When we look at it, we can see that we've got some sticky out bits at the bottom which were actually the roots, and there's not much left of the crown of the tooth, and this is because as the enamel heats up, it actually explodes.  So, what we tend to find, when we find teeth, is just the lower portion.  When we do find enamel, it's often because it's unerupted teeth from children which were still sitting inside the jaw - the presence of the bone of the jaw has actually protected the enamel and so that can be a clue as to the age of the individual that we're dealing with.

I also have a bag with a rather large bone in it which comes from the ankle of the individual, and when we look at this bone, we can see that the colouration on it is quite variable, so it goes from a sort of a dusty brown colour, through a bluish gray, to white in certain parts of it.  This is an indication that it has been subjected to varying degrees of heat.  So it's not totally burned out - there were still organic materials remaining in this bone, at the end of the cremation process.

Diana -   Do you find that that happens a lot to extremities like feet?

Jo -   Well, it's quite interesting because it happens according to the amount of tissue that is protecting the bone, and obviously, right within the ankle joint, which is where this bone has come from, then there's quite a lot surrounding it, with quite dense material that's protecting it.  But actually, we find that some parts of the body which we wouldn't expect to survive in that fashion do quite well, and that's because of the way that the body reacts to extreme heat.  So, when you cremate a body, the heat actually causes certain muscle groups to contract and that puts the body into a position that is known as the pugilistic posture, where the arms are drawn up, the hands contract into fists, and the legs go into what looks almost like a frog-like sort of posture.  And this means, for example, that the very ends of your finger bones (which you might expect to be burned very early in the process because there's not much flesh around them) when they're drawn into the fist, then they're very much protected.  And so they're one of the last bones that burn.  So here, I've actually got the very end finger-bone from somebody's hands that survived the burning process quite well.

Diana -   It's absolutely tiny.  It's incredible that something so small has survived.

Jo -   Of course sometimes what happens is that these smaller bones actually fall off and fall through the pyre and that can be another reason why they get protected and don't get burned up so much.

Diana -   And these bones are all several thousand years old.  How is it that they can survive even though they've been burned quite heavily and then presumably interred in the earth?

Jo -   Well, we have a slightly strange idea about what cremated bone ought to look like, because when our beloved relatives sadly die, and we take them down to the local crematorium, what we get back is an urn full of tiny unrecognizable ashes.  That's not actually what you get at the end of the cremation process.  What you get at the end of the cremation process is essentially a skeleton where some of the bones are a bit fragmented, but they come in very large pieces.  And because they've been burned, they're brittle, but they're still very recognizable.  In modern crematoria they actually have a special machine that breaks up the bones into a powder so that you cannot recognise any specific part of your relative, if you decide to scatter the ashes, because that would obviously be upsetting for you.  So, these individuals in pre-history would've gone into the ground in really very large pieces, and whilst they don't survive complete, they survive reasonably well.  And in fact, cremated bone actually in many conditions, survives better than uncremated bone.

Diana -   So, if you want someone to find you in a few thousand years and you're currently in the temperate climate, perhaps the best option is to get cremated the Bronze Age way.  That was Jo Appleby from the Department of Archaeology, at the University of Cambridge.

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