Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Seminar series, lecture 3: "Token explanations: the interpretation of burials in late prehistoric Ireland"

Katharina Becker is a previous member of the School of Archaeology at UCD, she is best known for her ground-breaking research as part of the Iron Age Ireland: Finding an Invisible People” project. She is now based at the University of Bradford where she pursues her work on the Irish Iron Age, notably taking part in a new research project: The Irish Iron Age: Beyond Celts and Romans”

In her seminar, Dr. Becker talked about the practice of cremation in the late prehistoric period in Ireland, and more specifically the occurrence of what has traditionally been labelled “token cremations” by archaeologists. She however challenged such a concept and argued that these small deposits of cremated human bone are neither “token” nor “burials”. Such an interpretation has been influenced by our own ideas about the need for a formal burial of the body and its part. Her talk highlighted the complexity of the archaeological record for the period and its potential to provide insights into later prehistoric mortuary practices and religious beliefs.
During the later prehistoric period, the rite of cremation was dominant, but inhumations are also found, and this before the introduction of Christian rites from the Roman Empire. A modern cremation would produce between 1227 and 3001g  of cremated bones for an adult. Archaeologically however, this is rarely the case. For a start, one must think of the efficiency of a modern crematorium as opposed to a funeral pyre. Then, there is the phase of recovering the bones from the pyre remains: a complete recovery would be very hard indeed. So it is common to find cremations with a quantity of bone far inferior to the data collected from modern cremations. The term “token burials” has – until now - been applied to interred deposits of very small quantity of cremated remains.
In her lecture however, Dr. Becker showed that on several instances, there seems to be a clear spatial relationship between the site of these “token cremations” and that of structures that can be interpreted as funerary pyres. This is the case at Rathgall, Co. Wicklow and Newford, Co. Galway. Such sites were in use over a period of time and it is likely that the pyre location was re-used for successive cremations. In this case, “token burials” of cremated remains in the vicinities of these pyres could very well be evidence for the deposition of residual material that was “cleaned out” of the pyre between its different uses. In this sense, it is neither token nor burial.
This does not mean however, that these deposits were meaningless: the very fact that the remains were interred speaks of their enduring significance in the eyes of the community who buried them. In the Iron Age, ring ditches seem to have been the focus for these practices. Such structures framed and delineated a special place, a place of transformation where the burial rites took place. The ditch itself became the preferred place for the deposition of charred remains, marking their significance as part of these rites.
In conclusion, it can be said that the concept of token burials draws , among other things, on anthropological parallels and on the Classical world (pars pro toto depositions). It belongs to a framework of thought in which the intactness and special treatment of human remains is of paramount importance. How far can this concept be applied to the archaeological record? In the case of late prehistoric Ireland, this record is far more complex than previously thought. Not only have the “invisible people” become visible, but we can now see that there were more fundamental changes in mortuary practices than previously thought, changes which go hand in hand with shifts in depositional practices in general.

By Alexandra Guglielmi

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