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Cremation Features in Przeworsk Culture Cemeteries in the Liswarta River Basin, from the Younger and Late Roman Period until the Early Phase of the Migration Period
 
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Instytut Archeologii Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego, ul. Gołębia 11, 31-007 Kraków
 
Wiadomości Archeologiczne 2015;LXVI(66):201–246
 
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Introduction: In the territory of the Przeworsk Culture throughout the entire Roman Period and in the early phase of the Migration Period there is evidence of specific changes in funeral rite. They can be seen in the introduction of new methods of disposal of the corpse and models of grave furnishings, but also in a wide array of previously little known sepulchral features now recorded in the cemeteries. The most notable change in the Younger Roman Period is the decrease in the number of urned burials deposited in pottery vessels in comparison to other forms of disposal, namely urned burials in a container made of organic material, or burials in a grave pit (K. Godłowski 1981, p. 109; R. Madyda-Legutko, J. Rodzińska-Nowak, J. Zagórska-Telega 2005, p. 184). Also on their way out are meticulously furnished burials containing sets of numerous, diverse items which now are replaced by less opulent offerings made to the dead, sometimes on the pars pro toto principle (J. Szydłowski 1974a, p. 74; K. Godłowski 1969a, p. 132–133; 1981, p. 117; J. Skowron 2005, p. 257). Simultaneously, there is an observable decline in the care taken to pick the cremated remains out of the cremation pyre, which is evidenced by small quantity of bones typically discovered in burials of this period. Also introduced in the Przeworsk Culture cemeteries during this age, new forms of sepulchral features include “layer features”, “cremation layers” and “groove features of the Żabieniec type” (K. Godłowski 1981, p. 117; J. Rodzińska-Nowak, J. Zagórska-Telega 2007, p. 269; J. Zagórska-Telega 2009, p. 265–266; 2013); they may co-occur in the same area of a burial ground, and at times form an extensive complex. All the phenomena mentioned above are well apparent in the Przeworsk Culture cemeteries in the Liswarta River basin. The settlement concentration situated in the Liswarta River basin appeared at the transition from the Early to the Younger Roman Period (Fig. 1). The earliest materials deriving from sites in this region may be dated to phase B2/C1, possibly the very end of phase B2, the youngest – to the early phase of the Migration Period, which corresponds to the period from approximately the second half of the 2nd century AD until the beginning of the 5th century. The archaeological record from the settlement concentration on the Liswarta includes a total of 120 or so archaeological sites associated with the Przeworsk Culture (M. Gedl, B. Ginter, K. Godłowski 1970, 1971; M. Fajer 2009). Of this number, research excavations were made in cemeteries at Opatów, site 1, Mokra, site 8, Rybno, site 1 (now Kłobuck-Zakrzew, site 2), Walenczów, site 10, all in Kłobuck district, and in the cemetery at Żabieniec, site 1 (now Częstochowa-Żabieniec). Most of these cemeteries were set up approximately during the same age, which means in phase B2/C1 or at the close of phase B2, only the burial ground at Żabieniec came into use during phase C2. Despite this fact, and also despite the relatively small distances between individual sites, they are far from uniform in their funeral rite. Horizontal stratigraphy, recoverable in the longer-lived cemeteries, has been used to trace changes in burial customs practiced by Przeworsk Culture communities settled in the Liswarta River basin in the Younger and the Late Roman Period, and in the early phase of the Migration Period. The record obtained from the burial grounds of the Przeworsk Culture identified on the Liswarta includes 1500 or so features. Of these, a vast majority (around 1400 features) have been interpreted as graves, which means the place of intentional deposition of the burnt remains of one or more deceased individuals, usually provided with grave goods, the whole deposited in a specially prepared grave pit. The latter was most often, although not always, situated outside the site of cremation. Features of the describe sort are the last stage of a burial ceremony which is recognizable using archaeological methods. Another category encountered in the burial grounds in the Liswarta River basin are features which are definitely related with the funeral rite although – despite the presence of a certain amount of cremated human skeletal remains within them – cannot be interpreted as “graves proper”. In this category belong groove features, layer features, cremation layers, pyre sites, and hearths. These features form clearly discernible complexes in the cemeteries. Layer features: Layer features are better documented only in the cemetery at Opatów (cf. note 34). They are marked by often having an irregular, sub-rectangular outline which ranges in size from 130 × 50 cm (feature 1194; Fig. 11) to 260 × 200 cm (feature 299). The fill of the layer features is non-uniform in colour, and contains multiple charcoal intrusions, usually in the upper part of the feature (feature 299). Also encountered are large fragments of charred wood (429). A number of features contained a layer of sand, burnt to a brick red colour (feature 429, 443; Fig. 12). At Opatów, layer features are observed for the entire duration of the cemetery, with their number clearly on the increase in the youngest phase of this burial ground (Fig. 13). This is indicated by single artefacts and also by the spatial analysis. The amount of skeletal remains found in layer features is very small. Nevertheless, most of them contained burnt bones belonging to a single individual. Groove features: A distinctive form associated with mortuary behaviour which is noted in all of the better preserved cemeteries in the Liswarta River basin are groove features of the Żabieniec type (K. Godłowski 1981, p. 117; J. Rodzińska-Nowak, J. Zagórska-Telega 2007, p. 269; in print; J. Zagórska-Telega 2009, p. 265–266; cf. note 4). The term “groove feature” is used to describe a regular, rectangular feature, typically 200–300 cm long and 30–40 cm wide. Usually these features are thought to have enclosed the site with funeral pyre. The cremation process over, the pyre debris, complete with the cremated grave goods and bones, was swept from the central area and deposited in a shallow ditch (groove). In the view of some researchers, the groove was also meant to aid proper circulation of air during the cremation (J. Szydłowski 1964a, p. 87; 1965, p. 442; J. Piontek 1976, p. 255). In the interpretation of K. Godłowski, the groove features are burials made at the place of cremation (K. Godłowski 1969b, p. 52; 1981, p. 117). The 24 groove features recorded in the cemeteries in the Liswarta River basin were variously preserved (cf. note 5). Some of them were identified for what they are only by re-examining the drawn documentation and the written site records. The largest number of groove features was recorded in the small necropolis at Żabieniec (13 features; Fig. 2). The fills of the groove features found in the cemeteries on the Liswarta were dark brown, dark gray, or deep black earth mixed with charcoal. On a number of occasions distinct concentrations of charcoal were observed, or large fragments of partly burnt wood, presumably belonging to the pyre debris (K. Godłowski 1965, p. 165; M. Gedl, B. Ginter, K. Godłowski 1970, p. 188). Most of the groove features enclosed an area identified as undisturbed soil, although in some of them blotches of earth burnt brick red were observed in the central part (Fig. 9) (K. Godłowski 1965, p. 165; M. Gedl, B. Ginter, K. Godłowski 1970, p. 188). The fills of groove features contained an appreciable quantity of metal objects. It is also important to note that most of the small finds were recovered from the upper levels of the groove features or from the overlying deposit, while virtually none were found in the lower levels of the fill. A particularly large accumulation of archaeological material was recorded at Żabieniec in the upper levels of groove features 30, 24W and 24E, above them and immediately next to them (in sectors XXIII and XXIV) (K. Godłowski 1969b, p. 51). Alternately, these finds could have been associated with layer feature no. 35, identified between groove features 30 and 24W. Nevertheless, it is safe to conclude that all of the features named earlier (nos. 30, 24W, 24E and 35) rested underneath a cremation layer (cf. Fig. 8). It needs to be stressed that the artefacts cannot be attributed with any confidence to either the groove features or the layer feature. The archaeological material and the analysis of grave distribution establish the dating of the groove features as between phases C1b and C2 and the early phase of the Migration Period (stadium D). Groove features contain a relatively small amount of cremated human bones, dispersed as a rule within the fill of the shallow ditch. Only in a few of them a larger quantity of bone was recorded (features 24W, 24E and 30 at Żabieniec). According to anthropological analysis, the assemblage from features 24 and 30 included bones of several individuals. Layer features and cremation layers: A different category of remains observed in cemeteries on the Liswarta are layer features and cremation layers. In the past they were interpreted as sites of cremation and burial, both on the same spot (K. Godłowski 1969a, p. 123; J. Szydłowski 1964a, p. 43). Based on more recent findings they may be separated into features of a relatively small size, dug into the ground only to a small depth, defined as “layer features”, interpreted with some confidence as the remains of a single cremation, and much larger features, recognizable on the ground surface as a 10–20 cm deep cremation layer, spread over an area ranging from a few to a dozen odd square metres. Burial grounds with a compact cremation layer at times have been described as “cemeteries with layer features” (F. Pfützenreiter 1937; K. Godłowski 1969a, p. 122–123; 1981, p. 117; J. Szydłowski 1964a; A. Błażejewski 1998, p. 110; 2007, p. 21, 23; J. Schuster 2005). Some authors suggested that the repeated use of a single site, and the repeated spreading of the pyre debris, created a layer rich in charcoal, cremated bones and pottery (J. Szydłowski 1964a, p. 42–45; K. Godłowski 1969a, p. 122–123). Differently, A. Błażejewski has interpreted both the layer features and the cremation layers not as the remains of cremation performed on that site but as the result of a deliberate removal and scattering of the cremated remains away from the pyre site (A. Błażejewski 2007, p. 25). Cremation layers: Except for the burial ground at Walenczów, cremation layers (cf. note 40) have been identified in most of the Przeworsk Culture cemeteries in the Liswarta River basin (Opatów, Mokra, Żabieniec, Rybno). The most recoverable and best documented are the cremation layers found in the cemetery at Opatów. These features were recorded across a large area, up to a few dozen odd square meters , and take the form of a layer of dark brown or black earth 10–20 cm thick. The entire layer is rich in charcoal fragments, lumps of fire-hardened clay, a substantial quantity of burnt human bones, as well as fragments of ceramic vessels, metal objects and lumps of melted glass. Some cremation layers contained a concentration of pottery and bone fragments. At the same time, in the lower parts of some cremation layer features larger and smaller pits filled with a deeper black deposit were found, as well as concentrations of a larger number of artefacts, described at the time of detection either as concentrations or as graves. Next to them, also confirmed are relatively small pits (about 30 cm in diameter) – the remains of posts, used presumably to strengthen the construction of the cremation pyre. Their lower levels were mostly free of artefacts. In the cemetery at Opatów cremation layers cluster in two opposite ends of the cemetery, the south-western and the eastern (Fig. 14). Similar cremation layers, definitely smaller in area, are known also from the cemetery at Rybno (cremation layer and groove features 16/1967, 18/1967) and Żabieniec (feature 35, between groove features 24 and 30). All have been dated to the closing phases of the burial grounds, i.e. phases C3–D. Anthropological analysis of the material found in the cremation layers identified the at least a few adult individuals, women and men, from different age groups, as well as children. Pyre sites: Another type of feature which is associated with cremation, known in the Polish literature as ustryna, is the pyre site (cf. note 45). Usually, it has the form of a medium-sized hollow, rectilinear, rather deep, containing a deep black or a dark brown fill, often interspersed with a great quantity of charcoal. As a rule the walls and bottom of this feature have on them discoloration from high temperatures. Many pyre sites contained structural elements, e.g. a layer of stones or the remains of posts which made it possible to use the site repeatedly (H. Zoll-Adamikowa 1979, p. 50; R. Madyda-Legutko, J. Rodzińska-Nowak, J. Zagórska-Telega 2002, p. 339). Very few pyre sites have been recorded in prehistoric cemeteries and they have been given relatively little attention in literature (J. Szydłowski 1964a, p. 86–88; H. Zoll-Adamikowa 1979, p. 50; J. Woźny 2000, p. 47–58; R. Madyda-Legutko, J. Rodzińska-Nowak, J. Zagórska-Telega 2002; A. Błażejewski 2007, p. 34; B. Józefów 2008, p. 213; 2009a, p. 226–228; 2009b, p. 543–544; J. Zagórska-Telega 2009, p. 266). Recently, a more extensive discussion of these features was made by B. Józefów who, similarly as most authors, uses the term “pyre site” to describe a permanent site of cremation, one that never served as a site of burial, and as such is not a grave (B. Józefów 2008, p. 213; 2009a, p. 226–228). Eighteen features discovered in the cemeteries in the Liswarta River basin (Opatów, Mokra, Żabieniec) may be interpreted with confidence as pyre sites (cf. note 46). They are relatively large, ranging from ca. 110 × 70 cm to ca. 330 × 140 cm in size, their shape sub-rectangular. A pyre site usually includes a large quantity of charcoal, and even charred timber (Opatów feature 234; Żabieniec feature 15C; Fig. 18), on occasion, also lumps of fire hardened construction daub (Mokra feature 455). Some of these features contained moreover the remains of stone-built structures (Fig. 19) or structural timber elements, e.g., postholes (Fig. 20). In the cemeteries from the Liswarta River basin the first pyre sites are recorded in phase C1 of the Younger Roman Period, and the last in stadium D. The fill of nearly all of these features contained a relatively small quantity of burnt human bones, between 3 and 42 g, suggesting that little care was taken to retrieve the cremated remains from the pyre sites. To summarize the observations concerning the features discussed earlier, discovered in Przeworsk Culture cemeteries on the Liswarta, we have to say that all of them were associated with practices attendant on the cremation burial rite. Both the layer features and the cremation layers as well as the groove features and pyre sites, are the remains of sites where cremation was carried out, thus, their function was similar. Their variation observed during research excavations boils down in essence only to differences in size, depth and outline. Pits of larger size, observed in the case of layer features and pyre sites, originally would have been found underneath the pyre. They were dug to assist circulation of air during the cremation process (J. Szydłowski 1964a, p. 87; 1965, p. 442; J. Piontek 1976, p. 255). The same function was served presumably by the rectangular groove features surrounding the pyre. It is also notable that in cemeteries in the Liswarta River basin features associated with cremation often occur in groups. This situation was observed in the cemeteries at Opatów and at Mokra in their eastern and western parts, as well as in the smaller burial grounds, at Rybno and Żabieniec. In the two latter cremation layers were identified in the neighbourhood of groove features or above them. As already suggested in literature, the burial rite in the Przeworsk Culture evolved in the direction of only a symbolic burial, in keeping with the pars pro toto principle. On this same principle only a small part of the grave goods passed into the grave. One frequently revisited issue is what happened to the rest of the remains of the cremation and the grave goods (recently on this subject T. Makiewicz 2008; 2009 – with a list of reference literature). Some researchers were inclined to conclude that the very small quantity of cremated bone in the grave is due to their very heavy burning on the pyre (A. Niewęgłowski 1981, p. 123–124; A. Błażejewski 1998, p. 174). However, it seems that most of the cremation and the grave goods could have been left behind on the site of the cremation (K. Tackenberg 1925, p. 74; J. Szydłowski 1964a, p. 39–41; 1977a, p. 76; K. Godłowski 1969a, p. 135), and the groups of cremation features observed in the cemeteries consisting of groove features, layer features and cremation layers, are only the evidence of this “abandonning” of the pyre debris, not collected for deposition in a grave. It is hard to credit that an area of this sort, used repeatedly as the site of cremation, was at the same time regarded as a burial site. As to the origin of cremation features recorded in the cemeteries of the Przeworsk Culture people, presumably their introduction was associated with some new ideology, conceivably having an interregional range, from the sphere of eschatology. What the sources of these new beliefs were is much less clear. In an alternate interpretation the features would be a manifestation of changes in the way the burial ceremony was organized, changes presumably motivated also by religion, which involved moving the site of cremation within the confines of the burial ground. It is possible that the shift in the funeral custom had been triggered by impulses from the Roman Empire given that in provincial Roman cemeteries the remains of similar complexes of cremation features are also observed, similar to those which have been recognized, for one, in the Liswarta River basin.
ISSN:0043-5082