September 30, 2012

The rise and wane of the cremation ritual

A thought occurred to me recently as I was reading about the Urnfield culture and the two components of the Andronovo horizon, the Alakul and Fedorovo cultures which contrasted in their practice of cremation vs. inhumation. It seems that the cremation ritual rose to prominence during the Bronze Age and then largely waned during the Iron Age.

Of course, this did not occur everywhere, not was it an entirely linear process. For example, most of the patrician Roman gentes practiced cremation into historical times. The Greeks, on the other hand, who mostly practiced inhumation during the Bronze Age, seem to have adopted cremation during the Dark Age, and this was the custom immortalized by Homer. Of the Indo-Iranians, one branch leading to the modern Hindus adopted a cremation ritual, while another, leading to the Zoroastrian Persians adopted the well-known exposure ritual.

But, nonetheless, it is a fact that the cremation burial first rose to prominence during the Bronze Age, and this requires an explanation.

I don't know whether this hypothesis has been advanced before, but it seems to me that the most practical reason for the cremation burial is to facilitate transportation of remains.

In modern times, the desire to be buried in familiar surroundings is often strong, and people are often buried in a different place than where they die. Of course, thanks to technological advanced related to preservation and transportation, this is often practical. But, this would not have been so in the past: cremation may have been devised as a way to dispose of the dead and carry their remains.

I have argued before that a sort of "globalization" took place during the Bronze Age, as extensive networks associated with metallurgy, combining prospecting, mining, metalworking, distribution, and security were formed. The non-local nature of these natures was driven by the need to co-ordinate a range of activities that took place in geographically distant areas: sources of ore needed to be identified and mined; metal needed to be worked on by talented experts who could fashion it into useful instruments of high added value; the end products had to be protected (because of their high value) and transported to areas where it would be in demand.

In the context of this theory, the rise of the cremation burial makes sense. In Paleolithic times, there was no concept of "home", as humans lived nomadic lives, endlessly driven away in search of resources. In Neolithic times, a strong concept of "home" emerged, as humans were tied to their crops and domesticated animals, and to the dwellings they had created. And, indeed, people were literally buried under their homes in the earliest Neoltihic.

The revolution of the Metal Age was the rise of mobility. This was facilitated by advanced in transportation technology associated with wheeled vehicles, and was driven by the trade in metal objects and other specialized, high-value items. The segment of the population involved in this business formed the elite, because of their access to weaponry and wealth, and these elites were intrinsically mobile for the reasons enumerated above. They, like other Neolithic peoples, had inherited a "love of home" and were territorial, but their way of life demanded that they live and fight away from "home".

Hence, the rise of the cremation ritual, which was then copied by others, due to its association with the elite, as well as its signalling effect, because a proper full cremation requires a large quantity of wood and is expensive to prepare and carry out. The intensification of warfare during the Bronze Age may have been an additional factor in the rise of the cremation ritual, because it is a convenient way to dispose of the dead at a battle site, or away from an established cemetery.

My hypothesis may not capture all the complexities of the phenomenon, but I think that a utilitarian origin of the ritual, which later assumed ideological, social, or religious connotations may make good sense of at least the origins of the practice at a wide level during the Bronze Age.

An obvious downside of the cremation ritual is its almost certain detrimental consequences for the preservation of ancient DNA. As more DNA evidence from the prehistoric past continues to accumulate, it is useful to remember that part of the puzzle may have been irretrievably lost, although I suspect that the transience of the practice in many parts of the world and its co-existence with inhumation in others may have left us with enough evidence to work out the larger picture.


Al West said...

That's a possibility, but the practice of burning corpses is also hygenic. It's a useful thing to do if you need to dispose of a body. If there is an important practical origin for cremation, it may be best to see it in hygiene rather than transportation of remains.

Steppe burials were often preceded by cremations (I seem to remember your favouring an Anatolian origin for Indo-European, but, regardless, Indo-European traditions with clear origins/relatives on the steppe show cremation followed by burial). I believe that was the case for Vedic, archaic Greek, Scythian, and Germanic funerals (among many others). The remains were burned and then buried, rather than transported over long distances.

Of course, burial under houses is also a 'hygienic' way of doing things. And it isn't possible to bury someone under a house if you don't have one, making cremation necessary. So cremation should correlate with transhumance, but not in the way you're proposing - it doesn't seem to have been about transporting remains, but rather not having a place to put them. Leaving a stinking dead body about the place is not sanitary, and so people have come up with different solutions for the problem of people dying - mummification, cremation, burial, and combinations of these.

I agree with your view that cremation by fire - rather than at a modern crematorium - is a status symbol because it uses a lot of wood. And it also looks *totally badass*. Sure, there are probably practical reasons for it, but badassery in death seems like a good reason for doing it as well.

Dienekes said...

Steppe burials were often preceded by cremations

Some of them were and some were not. Some cultures practiced it, and some did not. Wood is a scarce commodity on the steppe.

I believe that was the case for Vedic, archaic Greek, Scythian, and Germanic funerals (among many others).

The Greeks only began using cremation during the Iron Age, although there are very occasional uses of the ritual during the Bronze Age. So, it is very clear that the hypothetical "coming of the Greeks", whenever it happened, did not involve a group of people who used cremation as the primary mode of disposal of the dead, as this fashion too hold long after plausible dates for this "coming of the Greeks".

Leaving a stinking dead body about the place is not sanitary

Digging a hole and putting the body in it is the most sanitary way of disposing of the dead. Exceptions involve mass illness or warfare, where it might pay off to burn the dead prior to burial.

Al West said...

Regardless, where cremation was common, at least on the steppe, it was often, if not usually, followed by inhumation. The people moving about the most do not appear to have used cremation as a way to transport human remains.

Burial may be the most sanitary, but it isn't the only sanitary solution to the problem of dead bodies. The motives for cremation seem complex, and inter-related, but hygiene and status seem like better bets than wanting to move the remains about the place.

Dienekes said...

Regardless, where cremation was common, at least on the steppe, it was often, if not usually, followed by inhumation. The people moving about the most do not appear to have used cremation as a way to transport human remains.

What is the evidence for that? To prove that remains were buried at the same location that they were burned, one would have to have joint evidence of the funeral pyre and the tomb for the same individual at the same site.

Also, the "people who move the most" are sometimes the ones who don't call any place home. A "travelling salesman" or "sword for hire" may have a home, even though his work leads him to travel around as an adult. A nomad does not really have a home, and every bit of steppe is as good as any other.

Al West said...

Evidently, either more evidence is needed or the existing evidence needs to be delved into again. Because at the moment, you're criticising my position on the basis of a lack of evidence, while similarly lacking support for your own. Yes, people in the 'Bronze Age' in Eurasia were more mobile, but you can't then go on to say that they practiced cremation in order to move human remains about without showing that this indeed occurred.

Cremation in plenty of documented civilisations involved burning the individual and then burying them, either in an urn or otherwise. Look to myth for some examples: Beowulf's funeral involved a pyre and then burial in a barrow, alongside treasured objects. The same occurred for Patroclus. Hector is burned on the tenth day after his death and buried on the eleventh. Achilles is burned after seventeen days and buried in a tumulus immediately (if I remember correctly).

Ibn Fadlan documented a Rus' funeral that involved cremation along with treasured goods, with a tumulus built over the pyre. Caesar says that the Gauls did the same with their honoured dead. Tacitus says the same of the Germans. Old Prussian and Lithuanian kings were cremated and interred in a tumulus with their valuables. In each case, they were burned and then interred soon after.

You're right that cremation appeared late on, and dates only to the 13th century BCE or so, but in every civilisation of which I am aware in western Eurasia, the remains were seldom transported far and were buried where they were burned or shortly after.

The ball is in your court, and I would be genuinely fascinated to find out that you were correct. But it seems to me that the hypothesis requires more evidence than you have given, and I believe the literary evidence tips the balance in favour of a different origin for cremation - perhaps in the desire for status or the fact that fires are awesome.

Dienekes said...

Yes, I certainly don't claim to have empirical evidence for my hypothesis.

I do think that it has an advantage over alternative hypotheses, however, because it explains why the ritual came into use at the same time as increased mobility, and why it waned later on.

Al West said...

Certainly, but there's always the possibility that it was just a fashion - something expensive and unnecessary that displayed wealth and power so well that no other practical reason was necessary. Increased mobility could have allowed for the spread of the fashion more than anything else. There don't seem to be any examples of cremation preceding movement of the remains, so it seems to be an unnecessary step that hasn't been preserved in any known tradition, ancient or modern. But yes, it's still a possibility.

AP said...

"What is the evidence for that? To prove that remains were buried at the same location that they were burned, one would have to have joint evidence of the funeral pyre and the tomb for the same individual at the same site."

Almost at any location in eastern India you will find cremation burial mounds. Some of the more famous ones that have been excavated at Lauriya.

Apparently just for the Buddha there were initially eight (one was in the west in Swat) and then 84000 mounds!

Dienekes said...

There don't seem to be any examples of cremation preceding movement of the remains

What are you talking about? This was common practice during classical times. For example, there are remains of Athenian soldiers who were cremated during the Peloponnesian war and transported for burial to Athens.

Another source:

"Other possible motivations for
cremation include the transport home of individuals who had died abroad, general attitudes
toward the significance of death, the conferring of public honors, and the expression of wealth
and status (Irion 1968). T"

mr. Know When said...

Interesting theory, but it as you mentioned it is a very complex

Anyway since the late neolithic(megalithic sites) it is clear that peolple became attached to manmade burialsites and structures, These were literally ancestral landscapes/landmarks.

All these necropoli/cemeteries were often located along rivershores and/or built on natural ridges - pure for visiblity. Therefore cemeteries are definately not randomly chosen places. These places were special. They were valuable in terms of ancestors and in terms spatial capacity. Besides cremation burials compared to inhumations don't use as much space as inhumations do. Another favouring factor is that Bronze age tumuli tend to be bigger than the smaller Iron age cousins. This had something to do with social status. And when it became more mainstream, people had to temper their burial ambitions if they wanted to be buried next to their ancestors. So this might be another reason why cremation became more populair during the metal ages.

Al West said...

I stand corrected! That does make me more sympathetic to your proposition. But the Peloponnesian War took place nearly a millennium after the origin of the tradition. I don't think Homer mentions transportation of remains, and the rest of the European evidence suggests burning and burial on the same location. You're saying that traditions of the classical era preserve the core of a ritual that began nearly a thousand years earlier. It certainly caught on as a fashion in Europe, outside of Greece at least, rather than as a way of moving remains home. But I suppose the reasons things catch on are not necessarily the same as the reasons for which they begin, so perhaps you are right.

Perhaps you should have mentioned that in your post, by the way - that there are bona fide examples of it. That would at least give an empirical basis.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Per Wikipedia: "In the Middle East and Europe, both burial and cremation are evident in the archaeological record in the Neolithic. Cultural groups had their own preference and prohibitions. The ancient Egyptians developed an intricate transmigration of soul theology, which prohibited cremation, and this was adopted widely among other Semitic peoples. The Babylonians, according to Herodotus, embalmed their dead. Early Persians practiced cremation, but this became prohibited during the Zoroastrian Period. Phoenicians practiced both cremation and burial. From the Cycladic civilisation in 3000 BC until the Sub-Mycenaean era in 1200–1100 B.C., Greeks practiced inhumation. Cremation appearing around the 12th century B.C. constitutes a new practice of burial and is probably an influence from Minor Asia. Until the Christian era, when the inhumation becomes again the only burial practice, both combustion and inhumation had been practiced depending on the era, and area. Romans practiced both, with cremation generally associated with military honors. In Europe, there are traces of cremation dating to the Early Bronze Age (c. 2000 B.C.) in the Pannonian Plain and along the middle Danube. The custom becomes dominant throughout Bronze Age Europe with the Urnfield culture (from ca. 1300 B.C.). In the Iron Age, inhumation becomes again more common, but cremation persisted in the Villanovan culture and elsewhere. Homer's account of Patroclus' burial describes cremation with subsequent burial in a tumulus similar to Urnfield burials, qualifying as the earliest description of cremation rites. This is mostly an anachronism, as during Mycenaean times burial was generally preferred, and Homer may have been reflecting more common use of cremation in the period in which the Iliad was written centuries later. Criticism of burial rites is a common aspersion in competing religions and cultures, and one is the association of cremation with fire sacrifice or human sacrifice. Hinduism and Jainism are notable for not only allowing but prescribing cremation. Cremation in India is first attested in the Cemetery H culture (from ca. 1900 B.C.), considered the formative stage of Vedic civilization. The Rigveda contains a reference to the emerging practice, in RV 10.15.14, where the forefathers "both cremated (agnidagdhá-) and uncremated (ánagnidagdha-)" are invoked.
Cremation remained common, but not universal, in both Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome."

Cremation and iron smelting appear at various places in West Asia at around the same time and cremation could have gained popularity as a religious and cultural nod to the "amazing" powers of intense fire. Iron smelting and cremation, both spread by Indo-Europeans predominantly, may have been elments of the same culture. This would have been post-PIE, but the cultural leap that included both may have supplied the dynamism that lead to explosive and stable Indo-European growth thereafter.

Dienekes said...

But the Peloponnesian War took place nearly a millennium after the origin of the tradition.

You claimed that: " There don't seem to be any examples of cremation preceding movement of the remains, so it seems to be an unnecessary step that hasn't been preserved in any known tradition, ancient or modern."

I don't think Homer mentions transportation of remains

The events of the Iliad take place in one location, nine years into the Trojan War.

Another famous example in a different Bronze Age tradition was that of the Hebrews who carried the bones of Joseph out of Egypt.

There is ample historical evidence for the psychological need to bury people in familiar surroundings. The weight of proof is on those who think that this widespread historically-attested psychological impulse was any different for people who lived before the historical period.

Al West said...

Then, again, you should have said this in your post. You stated that you had no evidence on which to base your assertion - "I certainly don't claim to have empirical evidence for my hypothesis." It seems like this is an ad hoc exercise - which is fine, now the evidence seems clearer. But perhaps outlining the evidence rather than the simple correlation between cremation and movement would have been a good idea.

And again, in Europe, the practice is found primarily as a burn-and-bury ritual. It may have begun earlier with different practices and for different reasons, but it is clearly found in most European traditions in the form of cremation and then burial at the same site.

Joseph is different - he wasn't burned. The story wasn't written down until the middle of the first millennium BCE, so I'm not sure, again, how accurate a representation it is of Bronze Age life.

I am sympathetic to the theory, but it would need a considerable amount of sleuthing to verify it. Much of the evidence seems contradictory and the issue seems complex.

Annie Mouse said...

I recall a Time Team episode from some years ago (2008) that was looking at a settlement in the Outer Hebrides (Barra) from some 2000 years ago. This site had cremations and burials from a very similar time period, most probably the same family. It looked like death fashions in transition. Unfortunately I could not find a live link to post here, all the ones I looked at were inactive.

This area would have been the backend of beyond 2000 years ago. Overall it looked like folk were burying the dead, recovering the skeletons for some purpose for a period of time, then cremating the bones and re-intering the ashes. At the end they seem to be skipping the skeleton-in-the-house stage and going straight to cremation. The ashes weren't going anywhere in this culture.

The oldest stories in Europe talk about disposing of the dead by air exposure and cremations (eg in boats). This seems more practical in a cold climate where digging the ground would be difficult.

An 11.5k old cremated child was found in Alaska a few years ago. The family cremated a child in the hearth and then abandoned the house. Leaving the ashes behind.

Other interments seem to involve piling stones around the body or leaving them in caves. The Red "Lady" of Pavilland 33kya was a cave interment, but this was a prestige interment perhaps explaining the use of what had to have been valuable cave real estate. We have found the oldest human remains in caves like this but I dont think this reflects what was actually happening routinely, just what has stood the test of time. Even todayit is had to recover much from a cremation, or even a sky interment.

Burial is I think a warm weather ritual that arrived in Europe later than the others, it is very imjpractical. Cremation IMO appears to be a practical measure used for many reasons (convenience, ritual, hygeine etc), with transport being one of the very recent reasons.

Creative said...

I personally find that the ritual of cremating a Human is strange .The idea of actually completely destroying a body in its physical form is somewhat awkward in contrast to more common Oriental forms in which the Human body must be maintained in its Natural form. Dont ask me why, but on my list of ritual impure things Human-Ash is on top.

Jim said...

"There is ample historical evidence for the psychological need to bury people in familiar surroundings."

It's damned near universal. It is very well-established in China.

One of the very first types of mutual aid societies that Chinese laborers formed in California during the Gold Rush was burial societies. You paid a little in each month and if you died, you were assured of having your remains transported to your ancestral district for burial.

In Dream of the Red Chamber there is a whole long sub-plot having to do with the hugelyextravagant funerals of one of the grandfathers and how the body lies in state for however long and then finally one of the sons escorts the body back to the ancestral distrcit in Nanjing. I thnk anouther of the sons has ot get leave form his post to accompany the body. It was considered a very big deal and he would have been censured for not doing it.

In China though it is the entire body, in whatever state of preservation, that is transported. Usually only rich people could aford that, but usually only rich people ever got very far away from their home districts, as with the official family in the Dream of the Red Chamber.

Nomads would probably not have had anything like the necessary resources or technology.

Something else to consider is some kind of change in religion. There is a lot of continuity in IE religious tradition, but there are some really abrupt discontinuities as well. That could also have fed into the adoption of cremation.