Death and the Regeneration of Life: A New Interpretation of House Urns in Northern Europe. (Notes & News)

By Bradley, Richard | Antiquity, June 2002 | Go to article overview

Death and the Regeneration of Life: A New Interpretation of House Urns in Northern Europe. (Notes & News)


Bradley, Richard, Antiquity


House urns occur in two distinct areas of Bronze Age and Iron Age Europe. To the north, their distribution extends from Sweden into Poland, northeast Germany and the northern Netherlands, and to the south it is restricted to Italy (FIGURE 1; Bartoloni et al. 1987; Muller 1999). Montelius (1897) seems to have been the first person to suggest direct links between both groups of finds and his view has been followed by more recent writers (Kossack 1954; Stjernqvist 1961: chapter 4; Kristiansen 1998: 166). The difficulty with this interpretation is that it does not consider whether the vessels in both groups shared the same significance.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

It is certainly true that they have stylistic features in common (FIGURES 2 & 3). House urns are ceramic models of buildings and often portray details of their architecture such as doors, roofs and external decoration. Both regional groups are of similar date. In Italy they seem to have been made between the 10th and 8th centuries BC (Bartoloni et al. 1987) and in northern Europe they were first used at about the same time but here they may have had a slightly longer currency (Oelmann 1959). In each area they are found in cemeteries and contain cremated bones.

[FIGURES 2-3 OMITTED]

Early sources considered all the vessels as a single group (Muller 1999). This practice began in the middle of the 19th century and was taken a stage further in 1924 when Behn published his monograph `Hausurnen'. He was so confident that they were copies of domestic dwellings that he made models of their likely prototypes and illustrated them in his book. More recent work suggests that there is greater variation. This is illustrated by an important difference of terminology. In Italian these vessels are urne a capanna, which can be translated as `hut-urns' (Bartoloni et al. 1987), whilst the northern examples are called Hausurnen, or `house urns' (Muller 1999). Although each name refers to the kind of building represented by the models, this procedure has led to some confusion.

Behn's interpretation does apply to the Italian examples (FIGURE 2), for houses of very much this form have been identified in excavation (Bartoloni et al. 1985; Bartoloni et al 1987). They date from the same period as the pots and are found in the same parts of the country. These vessels seem to have been copies of normal domestic dwellings. They are associated with cremation burials but are not common and may have been restricted to particular groups in society according to status or gender.

When Behn was writing nearly 80 years ago, very little was known about prehistoric houses in Northern Europe. The situation only improved with the identification of timber buildings through large-scale excavation. One of the pioneers of settlement archaeology on the Continent was Gerhard Bersu, and so it is particularly appropriate that it was in a volume dedicated to him by his colleagues that Oelmann (1959) studied this class of pottery. In his view house urns did not portray domestic dwellings after all. They were probably copies of the storehouses or granaries that Bersu had identified in the field.

Oelmann's interpretation has been influential and it emphasizes a significant difference between the vessels found in Italy and those in other regions. It depends on a feature of the urns in Northern Europe which was under-emphasized in early publications. Unlike most of their Italian counterparts, the doors of the house urns did not open at ground level, but were located part way up the wall, suggesting that their prototypes would have had raised floors (FIGURE 3). This argument is supported by some of the finds from northern Poland which depict small rectangular buildings raised on pedestals. These vessels are more like the timber structures usually interpreted as granaries.

The pots in northern Europe do not look like the houses that have been identified by excavation.

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