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Experimental Sheep Cremation Project

‘The effects of ritual dowsing on fissure-patterning in cremated bone’

Róisín McCarthy, Cardiff Osteoarchaeology Research Group

Roisin McCarthy and Jacqui Mulville preparing the lamb on the pyre

Roisin McCarthy and Jacqui Mulville preparing the lamb on the pyre

The Cardiff Osteoarchaeology Research Group recently joined forces with the National Museum Wales and St. Fagan’s National History Museum to conduct an experimental outdoor sheep cremation simulating Anglo-Saxon ritual practices. The aim of this research was to gain a better understanding of the effects of purposeful manipulation of bones during cremation and how this may help in our interpretation of the types of rituals, if any, that were performed as part of the ancient cremation process.

Project Background

Pyre during the first half an hour after lighting

Pyre during the first half an hour after lighting

The mechanisms behind fissuring patterns in bone as a result of exposure to fire have been well illustrated by previously published experimental cremation studies. Despite this, little work has been done to address the affects of purposeful manipulation and/or intervention in the cremation process as opposed non-intervention on the subsequent fracturing and fissuring patterns observed in cremated bone. We know little about the ritualised processes that defined the early Anglo-Saxon cremation rite. Ritualised practices such as dowsing and washing of cremated bones with water/wine, for example, have been referenced in Roman literature (e.g. Homer’s: The Iliad). Similar practices are observed today in ethnographic examples, such as Hindu cremation rituals. This type of manipulation, if performed as a means of cooling the bone prior to collection, may well have resulted in a distinctive bone fissuring and/or fragmentation pattern, but as of yet has not been formally tested.

Pyre during the first hour after lighting

Pyre during the first hour after lighting

The large corpus of excavated graves dating from the 5th- 7th century in England, in particular, has the potential to provide important osteological evidence for the Anglo-Saxon cremation ritual process, however the assessment of fissuring and fragmentation patterns in Anglo-Saxon cremated bone as a means to interpret past activity surrounding the cremation ritual has seldom been applied in practice.

Experimental Process

The experiment involved the open-air burning of a sheep carcass on a pyre constructed of mixed hard and soft wood logs, using hay and brushwood as kindling. The carcass was then burned until only calcined bones remained after which time a portion of the bones, still hot, were raked to one-side and immersed in water to simulate ritual dowsing. The remaining bones were hand-picked from the wood ash and allowed to cool naturally.

Summary of Results

Jacqui Mulville and Simon Avery (Volunteer)

Jacqui Mulville and Simon Avery (Volunteer)

Initial osteoarchaeological analysis of the cremated sheep bone revealed distinctive differences in the levels of fragmentation between the dowsed bones versus those that were allowed to cool naturally. It would appear that the bone immersed in water crumbled due to the sudden cooling effect of the dowsing procedure. Levels of fragmentation in cremated bone assemblages are commonly ascribed to the effects of the burial environment and post-excavation treatment and seldom interpreted as a result of ritualised practices. Although these factors almost certainly have a significant impact, the result of this research proves that ritualised practices also had a potentially important role in the appearance of cremated bone even before burial. It is hoped that further analysis of the sheep bone sample will reveal a recognisable pattern of fissuring as a result of dowsing and that in turn this work will help to broaden interpretations of bone fissuring patterns in cremated remains and ultimately enhance our knowledge of past cremation practices and rituals.