A Pyre and Grave Goods in British Cremation Burials; Have We Missed Something?

By McKinley, Jacqueline I. | Antiquity, March 1994 | Go to article overview

A Pyre and Grave Goods in British Cremation Burials; Have We Missed Something?


McKinley, Jacqueline I., Antiquity


There is more to a cremation than the human bone -- turned white and blue-grey by the fire, enough to fill a fair-sized hat -- because so much may go on the pyre with the corpse.

For many years cremation burials have been the 'poor relation' of British cemetery studies, and to some degree this attitude still persists. Until comparatively recently, the cremated bone was often ignored or even discarded, in the brave assumption that little or nought would be gained from its analysis. Much research has been carried out into the more glamorous aspects of cremation cemeteries, urns and the 'grave' goods, but the bone, i.e. the primary reason for the cemeteries' existence, has largely been ignored, and in some quarters still is.

Cremations are more than simple collections of human bone. The 'cremation' encompasses evidence of the technical process, of ritual and of burial. In addition to human bone, it may contain cremated animal bone, pyre/grave goods and pyre debris. It is with grave goods, or more correctly, the pyre goods, that this paper is concerned. A consequence of failing to analyse cremation burials is that pyre goods, or evidence of pyre goods, may be overlooked. Many goods consisted of worked antler or animal bone, fragments of which may easily pass un-noticed by the non-specialist amongst a mass of cremated bone. A distinction needs to be made between 'pyre goods', objects put on the pyre with the deceased, and 'grave goods' only added at the time of burial. The inclusion of goods on the pyre where they would be destroyed, rather than as whole goods in the grave, implies a major ritual significance for the process of cremation. For example, the majority of goods from the Angle-Saxon cremations at Spong Hill, Norfolk, were pyre goods. The degree of burning varied from minor melting/warping of glass and copper-alloy objects, and slight scorching of worked antler and bone, to total liquidation of glass and copper-alloy, and mineralization of antler and bone (McKinley in press a).

Some pyre goods, e.g. wooden objects, amber and some foodstuffs, would not have survived cremation. In addition, since all the human bone was apparently rarely included in the burial, inevitably all the pyre goods probably were not either (McKinley 1989; in press a). This latter point may be demonstrated by findings from the Migration Period cemetery of Liebenau in Germany (Cosack 1983). Here, cremation burials were found to have been positioned within the confines of individual pyre sites; fragments of pyre goods recovered from several pyre sites were found to join with fragments from the corresponding cremation burial. The pyre goods recorded should be viewed as a minimum.

To a certain extent the presence and quantity of pyre goods in a cremation burial depends on the period. Since pyre goods are more common in Anglo-Saxon cremations than in other periods -- e.g. 67% from Spong Hill (McKinley in press a), 65% from Elsham (Richards 1987) and 60% from Sancton (McKinley in press b) -- there is greater potential for data loss where they are overlooked. As so much is deduced from Anglo-Saxon cemetery studies, an omission here may have far-reaching effects on interpretation of ritual.

A relatively small percentage of Bronze Age cremations have been found to contain pyre/grave goods (in the region c. 16%, but figures are very variable between sites), usually worked antler/bone objects (e.g. pins), some flint flakes/tools, and occasional copper-alloy objects. Large quantities of goods are rarely present, as they are in cremations of later periods. Blue/green spot staining, possibly from copper-alloy (see Dunlop 1975), has been noted by the writer in some Bronze Age cremations where no copper-alloy was recovered from the burial (McKinley 1986; 1992; forthcoming a, b, c). The writer has suggested that copper-alloy, having served its purpose as a pyre good, may have been collected for re-use after cremation.

Blue/green ? …

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