Hidden by fire – Understanding the post-processing of the dead prior to cremation

Project Details


Cremation was one of the dominant funerary rites before the rise of
Christianity in Europe. Thus, 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 and identify the patterns of treatment on human
remains before cremation. Previous work by the applicant identified a
trace element [potassium(K)] in bone from the extracellular fluid that
steadily decreases through decomposition and survives burning. If
endogenous K is diagenetically resistant, it would mean that the time
the deceased was exposed could be identified down to a few
months. The structural and chemical alterations to the bone through
diagenesis and burning will be studied using novel analytical
methods. Archaeological unburnt and burnt bone will be compared to
synthetic apatites with common ‘real’ substitutions to learn about the
thermal stability of chemical elements of interest. The results of this
study would confirm the existence of the highly debated postprocessing
of the dead prior to cremation and allow the identification
of the spatial dispersion, variations and possibly the origin of these
pre-cremation rites.
StatusNot started
Effective start/end date1/10/2230/09/25

Flemish discipline codes

  • Forensic chemistry
  • Geoarchaeology
  • Experimental archaeology
  • Analytical chemistry not elsewhere classified
  • Prehistoric archaeology


  • funerary archaeology
  • taphonomy
  • cremation