Insight on Cremation Remains

For the group’s first night back from our separate trips to Durham, Edinburgh, and Dublin, we’ve managed to pack a lot into one evening. Not only have we caught up with each other, detailing the highlights of our weekends, watched the series premier of Love Island, and opened more Lego card packs, but most importantly, we have attended a fantastic lecture at the Hedley Centre.

Priscilla Ulguim, who is working towards her PhD at the University of Teesside, gave a lecture entitled The Importance of the Archaeology of Cremation. During her lecture, she explained some of the science behind what happens to a body as it goes through the cremation process and how the remains can reflect what conditions the corpse was exposed to.

Doctor Meyer and Priscilla Ulguim talking before the lecture began. 

Before I dive into anything else, I want to debunk some common myths about studying cremated remains. Also, please excuse my photo angles and quality, I didn’t want to disrupt the lecture to take photos.

 One of the slides in the lecture addressing common myths concerning the study of cremation in archaeology. 

1. The cranium explodes during cremation.

This is FALSE. As the cranium heats and dries out, the bones will crack, but it does not explode.

2. The only thing to study from cremation is ash.

This is also FALSE. Often bone fragments can be found depending on the intensity of the heat, as well as funerary and pyre goods.

Another thing that people often wonder about is the contorted positions of cremated remains where the bones are still intact. You can get an idea of what this might look like in the following image.  Priscilla explained in her lecture that this is a result of the drying and shrinking of muscles and ligaments in the body as it is exposed to high temperatures. This can also cause bone deformation and cracking.

In the past, people have often thought of cremation burials as destructive, with little available insight and evidence, but this lecture explained why this is untrue. In some cases, cremated remains are the only evidence that remains from burials and with new scientific methods, social, ritual, and technological aspects of various cultures can be better understood.

We can learn about cultural and ritual practices through the funerary pyres at which bodies would have been cremated, where they were located, what type of wood was used, and various other aspects. The ritualistic behaviours of those who cremate their dead in Brazil (one of Priscilla’s specific areas of study) connects a fear of the power of the dead and following a certain pattern of actions to ensure that the spirit of the deceased leaves the mortal world.
A slide from the lecture explaining the result of soft tissue being exposed to high heat. 

There is a lot of scientific research that goes into examining these remains in order to uncover the evidence held within cremated remains. While Priscilla explained many different scientific methods used to analyze remains and how they work, I am not confident enough in my understanding to relay the information to the blogosphere. Importantly however, I know that there are macroscopic (colour, fractures, etc..) and microscopic (elements, crystals, microscopic structure, etc…) details that can provide evidence concerning the intensity of the heat that the body was burned in. While the macroscopic angle has been used in the past, scientific developments have allowed us to look at the microscopic changes which can provide a greater accuracy and detail in our analysis.

(Side note from Prem: If anyone does have questions about the scientific side, comment below and I can try my best to answer them to the extent of what I understood from the talk.)

This lecture was absolutely fantastic and fascinating. I’ve always been interested in burial practices but now I have a better understanding of why some cultures choose to cremate their dead and what we can learn from the remains. In my opinion, this lecture was the perfect jump start to the week after my weekend in Edinburgh.

If you want to learn more about the lecture, you can find the description of it here, and you can read more about Priscilla and her research here, or you can check out her twitter account.

Bye for now,

Anna

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