Blog posted by Erika Danella

Level Up! – Exploring Skeletal Distribution in Cremation Urns

Think about your morning routine. Is there a certain order you like to do things in? Some people might get dressed and then brush their teeth, others may brush their teeth first and then get dressed. There are also people who don’t have any preference at all! Essentially, humans have various ways of reaching the same end goal. In the context of this research project, we are trying to determine how Bronze Age people placed cremated bodies into funerary vessels, or urns.

We are interested in seeing whether or not there was a systematic, orderly way of placing cremated remains in the funerary urns. You must be thinking, “How can there be a systematic way of placing someone’s remains in an urn? Cremations transform people into ashes! How can you tell if you’re just looking at bone dust?” Well, contrary to what the music group Kansas has told you, we are not actually “dust in the wind”. Before modern day mechanical processing existed, cremation pyres merely reduced bone to smaller fragments, not to pure dust. Therefore, this allowed people to gather the remains and place them in their “secondary deposition”, which could be a pit or urn. While the Békés 103 site has both scattered and urn cremations, my project only characterizes the urn cremations. 

The urn cremations have been microexcavated layer by layer, which allows us to characterize possible patterns in the arrangement of certain bones within the urn. In particular, I have been weighing bone fragments from each layer to examine the ratio of cranial to post-cranial bones as we descend through the urn. Perhaps the placement of

fragments in the urn mimicked anatomical position in life, where the skull was placed on top of all of the other bones. On the other hand, maybe there was no pattern and bones were placed in the urn randomly as they were retrieved from the pyre. Not only will it be interesting to see which outcome our results suggest, but it would be fascinating if there is no consistency with either outcome. In other words, if most of the burials reflect no pattern in skeletal arrangement while other burials do, this could be of future interest to those studying the Békés 103 site. If the overall encompassing theme of BAKOTA is to study the factors involved with social inequality, differences in mortuary practices could reflect social status. After all, the main theme encompassing the BAKOTA project involves social complexity and inequality. Studying mortuary practices may help characterize signs of social inequality and the shift from egalitarian societies.  

My favorite part about anthropology involves the translation of past practices and societies to social issues we see today. By studying possible social stratification in the past, we can use this knowledge to help communities today. The BAKOTA Project provides a great opportunity to expand my abilities as a researcher as well as contribute to literature surrounding social inequality, Bronze Age Hungary, and cremation practices. I’m sad that our time here in Hungary is short lived, but I am extremely proud of what the team has accomplished and can’t wait to see how my results turn out! 


For more info: 

The process of a microexcavation: 

Cremation pyres and aftermath: