Hidden by fire
Understanding the post-processing of the dead prior to cremation
Cremation was one of the dominant funerary rites before the rise of Christianity in Europe. Thus, in many prehistoric assemblages the treatment of the dead prior to cremation is invisible to archaeologists, due to the drastic series of changes bone goes through when heated. Many archaeologists propose the presence of excarnation before cremation in Neolithic, Bronze, and Iron Age Europe, mostly based on macroscopic observations, such as heat-induced fracturing, and modern analogues in SE Asia. This work aims to determine the time between death and cremation by studying the diagenetic changes bone goes through in different environments and the thermal stability of bioapatite. Previous work by the researcher identified a trace element [potassium(K)]in bone from the extracellular fluid that steadily decreases through decomposition and survives burning. By examining the presence of K in bone, I hope to identify the time elapsed since death, possibly down to a few months. Novel analytical methods are used to study the structural and chemical changes to bone during diagenesis and burning, comparing archaeological samples to synthetic apatite with common 'real' substitutions. The results of this study would confirm the existence of the debated post-processing of the dead prior to cremation and allow the identification of the spatial dispersion, variations and possibly the origin of these pre-cremation practices.