Guest post by Clare Rainsford
Clare is a PhD researcher at the University of Bradford, studying animal remains in Anglo-Saxon burials from eastern England and Norfolk in particular. I blog about animals, archaeology and creative engagement with the past at fromthebonesoftheland.wordpress.com. Follow Clare on Twitter.
“Yet we cannot lightly dismiss these twisted bones as of no consequence when we recall how widely scattered is their occurrence in both time and space.” (Wells 1960)
In 1960, an article by Calvin Wells was published in the archaeological journal Antiquity, entitled “A Study of Cremation”. The article begins:
“Almost nothing is known about early cremations, and as a result of this, our problem resolves itself into two main divisions:
- To try and find out something about the population with which we are dealing, the sex ratio, age at death, individual pathology, and similar matters.
- To throw some light on the techniques and rituals of the actual cremation…”
Until the advent of Christianity in the 7th century AD, cremation was a common means of disposing of the dead, practised in Britain from at least the Bronze Age (2nd millennium BC), although how common it was and how much of the population it represented varied widely according to time period and geographical area. Yet the article published by Wells in 1960 was the first serious study of cremated bone published in the English language and working on British material. While well-known within the archaeological record in England, it was typically assumed that cremated bone was of no use and could provide no information about past populations or burial practices beyond the fairly self-evident fact that it was cremated. The process of consigning a person to the flames was assumed to destroy all of the morphological markers which were used on buried skeletons to tell whether it was male or female, old or young, or had any evident pathologies. In 1930, an eminent Swedish anthropologist recommended in a letter to the Chief Inspector of Antiquities in Stockholm: “…my considered opinion, based on experience, [is] that cremated remains of human bones in burial urns are almost always devoid of any anthropological interest… [T]hese bones are of no scientific value, and I consider that nothing is lost if they are neither submitted to nor preserved in the Museum.” (Furst 1930, quoted in Gejvall 1969: 468). This was the attitude which prevailed in Britain until the publication of Wells’ article in 1960.
The body of A Study of Cremation is a case study of the cremated bone from the Anglo-Saxon cemetery of Illington, Norfolk. In the east of England, and particularly in Norfolk, where Calvin Wells was based, large cremation cemeteries dating to the early Anglo-Saxon period (5th-7th century) and numbering hundreds or even thousands of urns are a common feature of the archaeological record. The abrupt change in burial method from minimally-furnished inhumation in the preceding Late Roman period indicates the practice was imported, perhaps as part of the practices of a diaspora community, from the Continent where it was more common. These cemeteries form a significant part of the relatively sparse archaeological record of the 5th-7th century. Illington itself was excavated in the 1950s for the Ministry of Works, and comprised just over 100 cremations.
Wells’ analysis demonstrated that you could identify age and sex from at least a proportion of cremations, based on such factors as (for age) size, deciduous / adult teeth, and bone fusion. Sex determination was substantially more subjective, with size and robusticity most often the only indicators used. Substantial space was also given to considering techniques of burning. In this, Wells was building on the work of Nils-Gustaf Gejvall, whose work he references within the article. Gejvall was analysing and publishing on cremated bone from Swedish sites in the 1950s, although his early publications were in Swedish, making them largely inaccessible to the broader British archaeological community. With the aid of J.E. King from the British Museum, Wells also identified animal bone within 21% percent of the human cremations from Illington – mostly sheep, but also horse, cattle, pig and dog – which were considered to have been included on the pyre as grave offerings. Recent reanalysis of the Illington assemblage has shown that Wells’ work contained important, if understandable, inaccuracies. Specifically, Wells tended to overstate what could be confidently said, particularly in terms of assigning age and sex. Animal bone in cremations was also underidentified, especially bone from larger mammal – in one cremation from Illington, several elements of horse probably representing a complete skeleton had passed undetected. While not up to modern standards, the impact of Wells’ work was such that it was made impossible for anyone to claim thereafter that cremated bone was neither useful nor informative.
The impact of Wells’ article, and of his subsequent work in analysing cremated material
sent to him by excavators, is hard to overstate. As late as 1967, Wells was almost the only palaeopathologist in Britain who regularly analysed cremated bone, but his work was sufficient to change perspectives on the usefulness and therefore curation practices for cremations. Prior to 1960, since cremated bone was considered to be effectively useless, it was not considered important to keep cremated bone which had been excavated. While artefacts and urns excavated from cremation sites were highly valued for their use in constructing typological and chronological sequences, cremated bone was for the most part discarded on site. This practice has decimated archives. Of the 70-80 burials excavated from the Castle Acre cemetery (Norfolk) between 1851 and 1897, none of the cremated bone survives, although other parts of the material archive remain in store at Norwich Castle Museum. For other sites, discard policies were more sporadic, although no less unhelpful. At the Anglo-Saxon cemetery of Caistor-by-Norwich (Norfolk), excavated during the 1930s, what was retained of the cremated bone were examples that the excavator found interesting – primarily individual elements of burnt animal bone and milk teeth from cremations of children. From this large and clearly important cemetery, containing at least 370 cremations, the material archive which survives consists of one shoebox with a few fragments of cremated bone from 43 cremations, any objects from within the cremations, and a store room with serried ranks of empty urns.
Nor are these isolated examples. One of the central problems for modern researchers looking at Anglo-Saxon cremation practices in East Anglia is that most cemeteries were excavated before their importance was understood. The earliest record of their (albeit inadvertent) excavation dates as far back as the 16th century, when it was recorded that “yn digging of a balke or mere in a folde” in Norfolk, many “yerthen pottes” were found, containing cremated human remains. Later, cremation cemeteries were regularly the target of antiquarian or early professional excavators in the 19th and early 20th centuries, such as Castle Acre and Caistor-by-Norwich. Within Norfolk, a survey of Historic Environment Record data indicates that there were 29 early Anglo-Saxon cremation cemeteries excavated prior to 1960, of which four (Castle Acre, Caistor-by-Norwich, Brettenham and Illington) contained over 100 cremations each. Of these twenty-nine cemeteries, only the archive from Illington survives intact – and this can be attributed to Wells’ influence.
From 1960 onwards, archives were generally retained, but many fewer cremation cemeteries have been excavated. Only 15 cemeteries containing early Anglo-Saxon cremations were excavated in Norfolk between 1960 and the present, and the majority of these are predominantly inhumation cemeteries with a handful of cremation burials. Only one large cemetery has been excavated and fully analysed, and this cemetery is Spong Hill, which has determined much of what is known about Anglo-Saxon cremation burial in eastern England. This is partly due to its very large size, but partly due to the lack of other large cemeteries to act as comparanda. Our understanding of Anglo-Saxon cremation burial has tended to rest on a few very large and well-published sites – not because museum archives are stuffed full of unanalysed material, but because they aren’t.
The publication of A Study of Cremation, and Wells’ continuing work on cremated bone, had a direct impact on curatorial policy. Put simply, if a site was excavated before 1960, it’s unlikely the cremated bone survives. After 1960, it probably does. The analysis and publication of Illington by Calvin Wells was not only the beginning of the discipline of cremation studies in Britain, but also instrumental in preserving archives, even where they were not immediately analysed. Analysis by a trained specialist is now accepted best practice for all cremated bone recovered by commercial, research or amateur excavation. The demography and the pyre technologies of cremation cemeteries have been shown to be essential in reconstructing the identity of the dead and the burial process, and how the identity of the deceased affects the social choices made in funerary rites. In periods where cremation and inhumation rites are contemporary, the practices and grave goods associated with the cremation rite have often been shown to differ significantly from inhumation practices, indicating different beliefs. More than fifty years of research have proved Wells right – we cannot lightly dismiss these twisted bones.
Gejvall, N. 1969. Cremations. In Brothwell, D. & Higgs, E. (eds.) Science in Archaeology (2nd ed.). London: Thames & Hudson. 468-479.
Rainsford, C. 2017. Animals, Identity and Cosmology: Mortuary Practice in Early Medieval Eastern England. Unpublished PhD thesis submitted to University of Bradford.
Waldron, T. 2013. Crooked Timber: The life of Calvin Wells (1908-1978). Journal of Medical Biography
Wells, C. 1960. A Study of Cremation. Antiquity 34: 29-37
Williams-Ward, M. 2017. Buried Identities: An osteological and archaeological analysis of burial variation and identity in Anglo-Saxon Norfolk. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Bradford.