The pig must burn

written by Michaela Fritzl, Asparn an der Zaya, 10 July 2018

Flames at least two meters high, a smoke column thrice that height, and a so much radiating heat that it’s impossible to go close – a pyre truly is an impressive experience. However, that is not the reason why we decided to reconstruct an Urnfield culture cremation. An archaeological experiment provides the means to reconstruct reasonable scenarios under specified conditions, make observations, document the results and therefore (if everything goes as planned) offers possible explanations for existing data.

The experiment was conducted at the archaeological open-air museum MAMUZ Asparn/Zaya. A collaboration of archaeologists, physical anthropologists and archaeozoologists (Herbert Böhm,  Karina Grömer, Michael Konrad, Andrea Stadlmayer, Ingrid Schierer and me) dressed a naturally deceased and post mortem injured pig in multiple layers of cloth and bronze costume attire and put it, together with some pyre goods, on a pyre. Our goal was to get some answers to questions about how clothing influences a cremation, how and why some goods are or are not altered by the fire, and what information can be obtained from burnt bones.


Personally, I conducted the experiment because I wanted to destroy some bronzes – replicas of Bronze Age dress and jewellery items, of course no antique artefacts! In Urnfield culture cremation burials, we often encounter burnt findings. While burnt ceramics are reasonably easy to recognise because they show discolorations, cracks and deformations, burnt bronzes are not as easy to identify. Depending on the particular alloy, the melting point of bronze varies around 950°C, a temperature which is not expected to be reached everywhere in a pyre. Therefore, some burnt bronze objects show considerable alterations and some may show none at all.


In this experimental cremation I placed a lot of small and delicate (buttons and Noppenringe) as well as some more massive (arm rings and a knife) bronze objects on various locations on the pyre so that some might survive apparently unaltered, some deformed, some partially and some completely melted. The objective was to produce as many different results as possible, analyse them, and construct a comparative basis for the original bronze findings. Except for determining whether specific bronzes were burnt or not we might be able to reconstruct where particular objects were placed on a pyre and how they were used in a cremation ceremony, because we know the specific conditions, which lead to specific results.


An initial assessment of the documented remains of the pyre suggests that I was somewhat successful. Now the real work will start. The recovered bronzes need to be listed, and a model built of the pyre, pyre remains and the burning conditions to see which factors influenced the objects that survived. Then, a detailed macroscopic and microscopic analysis needs to be undertaken to see what respective conditions affected them, before I can start to use the results for archaeological interpretations.


However, what I can say at this point is that (as always) more questions appeared than where answered by this experiment – which is why I already started to form new plans for further experiments!

All photos © Michaela Fritzl


About Katharina

Katharina is a prehistoric archaeologist working at the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Her main research interests include the archaeology of the human body, gender, identity and personhood as expressed through funerary practices and art. She specialises in the Bronze and Iron Ages of Europe. As a mother of two young boys, she gathered some practical experience in addition to her theoretical interest in motherhood.
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1 Response to The pig must burn

  1. Quite a few cultures have funeral pyres, even practicing today. I wonder if this practice was used in the deep past, perhaps destroying many bones of humans and leaving little evidence of them rather than others, such as neanderthals.


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