Archaeologists Identify Cremation Site Used for Generations in Bronze Age Italy

Cremation as inhumation became widespread in Europe about 4,000 years ago but took time to reach Salorno in northern Italy – where the practice would take a unique form

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
The pyre site, used over generations.
The pyre site, used over generations.Credit: F. Crivellaro / C. Cavazzuti / F. Candilio / A. Coppa / U. Tecchiati / Plos One
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

In a valley in northern Italy, surrounded by steep cliffs, Bronze Age villagers were cremating their dead. They used the same cremation platform over eight generations, which seems to have been highly unusual for the time and place, starting 3,150 years ago and ending about 200 years later.

Finds from antiquity may be open to interpretation, but in Salorno-Dos de la Forca in the Adige Valley, the archaeologists identified a relatively huge accumulation – 63.5 kilograms (140 pounds) – of burned human remains dating to the Late Bronze Age. That is an unprecedented quantity for an ancient cremation site, Federica Crivellaro of Stony Brook University and Sapienza University of Rome wrote with colleagues in Plos One last week.

Along with the charred human remains, the archaeologists also found fragments of burned animal bone, pottery fragments, and grave goods made of bronze, animal bone and antler.

It isn’t known when our species began to bury the dead or otherwise dispose of the body, or why – maybe respect, the smell or some other reason. The practice may go back hundreds of thousands of years, if one accepts certain congregations of Homo naledi remains as deliberate interment.

In fact, one reason for the sheer paucity of ancient human remains is thought to be that if they were buried, the graves were shallow, lending to grave robbery by scavengers. Anyway, even Neanderthals are thought to have interred their deceased, at least sometimes – in one case possibly resting on a bed of flowers.

As for cremation, in 2020 archaeologists reported on the earliest example discovered so far, about 9,000 years ago in Israel’s Jordan Valley. By the lush lake Hula, a pit was found to contain the unevenly burned remains of a young adult. To be clear, there are other older cases where archaeologists think “fire-induced modification” – whether of a fresh body or a desiccated one – had happened, but accidental fire cannot be ruled out.

Salorno-Dos de la Forca has been occupied since at least the Early Holocene. The cremation site sits at the foot of dramatic cliffs, at a spot that wouldn’t have been suitable for anything such as dwelling or agriculture, the team says. However, there could have been other reasons for its choice, such as proximity to water.

The ephemeral nature of pyres

Note that Salorno-Dos de la Forca is far from being the oldest cremation spot in prehistoric Europe, though it is perhaps the most definitive one. Cremation gained momentum as a practice in Italy, the Alpine region and in Central Europe in the early second millennium B.C.E., the team writes. But actual archaeological evidence of ustrina, i.e., collective funeral pyres, is scarce.

That is what one would expect given that the ceremony would usually have been done outdoors on pyres that served the purpose, once. “As confirmed by a number of experimental archaeological studies, funeral pyres are extremely ephemeral in nature,” the team writes. Once the body and wood have burned, the wind and weather kick in.

But this is where Salorno-Dos de la Forca is unusual: there is little room for doubt, with generation after generation burning bodies over years on the platform, the ustrinum.

Perhaps, based on the grave goods found in association, being burned presumably postmortem was a privilege of a small elite, they suggest. Or not: No other context interpreted as an ancient ustrina has produced anything like the sheer quantity found at Salorno, they say.

Beads and jewelry found in the context of grave goodsCredit: F. Crivellaro, C. Cavazzuti, F. Candilio, A. Coppa, U. Tecchiati, Plos One

All this said, mysteries remain. Did the villagers bring the bodies whole and burn them, and leave them there? In other words, did these villagers eschew individual burial, as had been and remains the norm, and create a collective final resting place for their dead? That would be unusual in the context of late prehistoric mortuary customs in the region, the authors say.

There are other possibilities too. Did they collect some ash from their dearly departed and place them reverently in urns to keep on their proto-mantelpieces, or to bury? Elsewhere in Bronze Age Central Europe, burned remains were often put into urns that were then buried. Did they engage in some sort of post-cremation secondary burial, removing parts and burying them elsewhere?

Based on their analyses, the archaeologists cautiously conclude that in this place, Salorno was the site of primary cremation and deposition of the bodies.

The Po Valley. A relatively huge accumulation – 63.5 kilograms (140 pounds) – of burned human remains was found at Salorno.Credit: Touriste

Funeral libations

In any case, as of 4,000 years ago, starting on the Danubian plains in Central Europe, cremation began to spread, if discontinuously and patchily. From about 3,500 years ago, archaeologists find massive adoption of “urn-fields” in the Po Valley and other river areas, while the mountain people in the Alps, Istria and Karst lagged, but the practice would reach them too. Salorno, which adopted the practice 3,150 years ago, according to this platform, is located between the Alps and the Po Valley.

Why the Bronze Age peoples abandoned straight burial for investment in cremation remains speculative. Compared with digging a grave, even if the body is washed and lovingly placed inside, cremation involved more effort – not least collecting and piling appropriate wood for the pyre. Following the “spectacular event,” as the authors suggest it was, there would have been the effort of collecting remains to deposit in an urn, and disposing of that urn.

There a spiritual driver behind the extra effort, the team suggests, suggesting evidence for that in the continuity of this ritual over centuries in Salorno-Dos de la Forca. In any case, the site was discovered in 1986, and with the soot the researchers detected “ceramic remains, minute burnt bone fragments, glass paste beads, and bronze and antler objects” – and identified it as a funeral pyre of massive proportions.

The site of Salorno—Dos de la Forca in the context of the Adige river valleyCredit: Courtesy of Ufficio Beni Archeologici di Bolzano, F. Crivellaro / C. Cavazzuti / F. Candilio / A. Coppa / U. Tecchiati / Plos One

At least some of the dead burned there were children, going by teeth that survived the fire. Also, based on analyses we would rather not dwell on, the archaeologists believe the dead of Salorno were cremated quite fresh, not in a state of decomposition.

In one additional curious note, they found a large number of cups among pottery associated with the pyre place, which could indicate that drinks were consumed during the funeral rite, following which the ceramic cups were thrown into the fire too.

It is the pottery that constrains the time frame in which this particular platform was in use, the authors explain: about 200 years, or eight generations. But where these people came from we cannot know, because one can’t analyze the genome or the proteome of a person who was burned.

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