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Burning by numbers: cremation and cultural transitions in Late Iron Age and Roman Britain (100BC – AD410)

Carroll, E. (2019) Burning by numbers: cremation and cultural transitions in Late Iron Age and Roman Britain (100BC – AD410). PhD thesis, University of Reading

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To link to this item DOI: 10.48683/1926.00085360


Late Iron Age and Roman Britain witnessed numerous cultural transitions. While these processes have received significant attention with regards to material culture, it is only recently that bioarchaeological research has considered the role of funerary practices and what they can contribute to our understanding of these phenomena. The primary mortuary rite during this period was cremation. Although previously thought to contain limited information compared to inhumation burials, current research now recognises that they hold the potential to reconstruct entire funerary sequences, from the building of the pyre, to the final deposition within the grave. Recent methodological advances in the field allow us to infer a wealth of information concerning burning practices and pyre technology that could not be achieved before. This study conducted a large survey of 2375 cremation deposits dating from the 1st century BC to the 4th century AD from Britain to establish trends according to both region and settlement type. The results found that while age, grave and pyre goods remained consistent across all settlement types and regions, the male / female ratio and burial type changed following the Roman conquest. This demonstrates the prolonged continuation of Late Iron Age traditions, alongside the uptake of more Roman-styled customs. Further trends were identified primarily rooted in different methodological practices adopted by different analysts and emphasise the need for standardisation. The primary analysis in this thesis focused on 102 cremation deposits from Hertfordshire combining archaeological, environmental, and osteological data. It found that cremation technology differed on an inter-cemetery and settlement type basis. It is possible that this was caused by the introduction of ustores or professional cremators to Roman towns, representing increased ‘industrialisation’ of funerary practices. This project also developed a new method for quantifying microscopic heat-induced alterations in burned bone using petrography. This technique reduces the risk of inter-observer bias that hinders other, qualitative methods and allows for the statistical categorisation of burning intensity. Overall, this thesis has demonstrated the value of funerary data (cremation) in the examination of cultural transitions in Late Iron Age and Roman Britain; it highlights how society was a fluid concept characterised by the continuation of pre-conquest ideals, the uptake of Roman customs and the creation of new cultural identities.

Item Type:Thesis (PhD)
Thesis Supervisor:Mueldner, G. and Lewis, M.
Thesis/Report Department:School of Archaeology, Geography & Environmental Science
Identification Number/DOI:
Divisions:Science > School of Archaeology, Geography and Environmental Science > Department of Archaeology
ID Code:85360


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