Human cremations were common practice across the Italian peninsula and central Europe from around 2000BCE up until 27BCE. However, archaeological remains of funeral pyres (or ustrina) are scarce, as they were rarely built to survive as permanent structures, so seldom remain preserved for us to discover.
The majority of late Bronze Age cremations that have been found across Europe were performed in the “urnfield tradition”, where cremated remains were kept in urns along with other goods and offerings. Rarely have human bone remains been found buried in the ground from this period, rather than stored in a container.
A rare and significant discovery has recently been found at the archaeological site of Salorno-Dos de la Forca, in the Adige Valley of Northern Italy). This pyre area dates to the late Bronze Age (1150-950BCE), and contains over 64kg of cremated human remains, human and animal bone fragments, pottery shards, and other goods made from bronze, glass paste beads and antlers.
Based on the weight of modern cremations, which can be about 2,500g for males, 1,800g for females, 1,000g for young adolescents, and 500g for infants, an international team of archaeologists estimated at least 48 individuals were present at the site. From the skeletal and dental elements preserved, they could confirm at least one child of six years, and one adolescent of around 13 years were present. This study, published in PLOS ONE, also shows that human cremains did not receive individual burial, but were likely left together in a communal pyre over many generations.
From an analysis of the pottery fragments discovered, there were at least 48 cups, three truncated cone bowls, four bowls, five biconial vessels, and at least two jars estimated to be present. The prevalence of cups found at Salorno was particularly important as it may have been related to the funeral rituals. A special type of cup, known as a Luco A type vessel, is often prevalent in other places of worship across Italian archaeological sites. It is thought that family and friends partook in a libation ritual of drinks and food, then threw the tableware into the pyre, to be cremated along with their lost loved one.
The continual unearthing and analysis of the Bronze Age remains of Salorno gives us a window into the private life of ancient communities, who demonstrated funeral customs that we can still relate to many millennia later.
Qamariya Nasrullah holds a PhD in evolutionary development from Monash University and an Honours degree in palaeontology from Flinders University.
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