Universiteit Leiden

nl en

Research project

Breaking and making the ancestors

What can the composition and arrangement of urnfield graves tell us about the social and ideological believes of the urnfield period societies?

Contact
Arjan Louwen
Funding
NWO NWO

The thousands of cremation graves of the urnfield period (Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age; 1100 – 500 BC) are the most prominent funerary legacy of prehistory in northwestern Europe. In the Low Countries alone more than over 600 of urnfields are known to us today.

The so-called ‘chieftains’ graves, famous for their monumental burial mounds and lavish grave goods, belong to this legacy as well. But these make up only 1% of the total of urnfield graves. The other 99% are anything but spectacular: mostly they consist of no more than a handful of cremated bones and occasionally a clay or metal object. The funerary ritual of the urnfield period is therefore often regarded as simple and uncomplicated.

The so-called ‘chieftains’ graves, famous for their monumental burial mounds and lavish grave goods, belong to this legacy as well. But these make up only 1% of the total of urnfield graves. The other 99% are anything but spectacular: mostly they consist of no more than a handful of cremated bones and occasionally a clay or metal object. The funerary ritual of the urnfield period is therefore often regarded as simple and uncomplicated.

Inconspicuous…? A close-up of the same urnfield grave. The burnt bones clearly visible as a concentrated package.

But is this really true? The contemporary chieftains graves tell us interesting stories about how people thought about their famous dead as ancestors: how these needed to be equipped with objects and which part of their complex social person was represented in the ‘after life’. Can similar stories be found with the inconspicuous 99% of urnfield graves as well? Recent studies of cremated bones from urnfield graves already show clues of deliberate incomplete interment of human bodies. The objects on their turn show signs of careful transformation by burning, bending and breaking. Apparently the funerary ritual of the urnfield period is indeed more complex after all.

…or complex? Again the same urnfield grave in even more detail. Between the burnt bones a curious bronze plate and the remnants of a small pot were discovered. Both objects were deliberately fragmented and mixed with the cremated bones. Are these just scarce remnants retrieved from the pyre or is this a whole new, meaningful composite artefact?

But is this really true? The contemporary chieftains graves tell us interesting stories about how people thought about their famous dead as ancestors: how these needed to be equipped with objects and which part of their complex social person was represented in the ‘after life’. Can similar stories be found with the inconspicuous 99% of urnfield graves as well? Recent studies of cremated bones from urnfield graves already show clues of deliberate incomplete interment of human bodies. The objects on their turn show signs of careful transformation by burning, bending and breaking. Apparently the funerary ritual of the urnfield period is indeed more complex after all.

Typical urnfield structures found at our own excavations at Apeldoorn. The two circular ditches (grey rings) once surrounded small barrows.

By looking into ( a.) the selection of objects, ( b.) the treatment of bones and objects prior to burial, ( c.) the arrangement of bones and objects within a grave and finally ( d.) the positioning of a single grave between other graves, this study will try to give meaning to the inconspicuous 99% of urnfield graves. The study will make use of a careful selection of published data on urnfields from the Netherlands, north Belgium and northwest Germany.

This website uses cookies. More information