Cremation is the burning of a corpse as a method of disposal. The corpse may be burnt on its own or with accompanying possessions or offerings. The ashes may then be either left in situ, taken and kept or buried. Cremation burials have been popular during many periods of history, notably urnfields in the Bronze and Iron Age, Roman and Anglo-Saxon periods, and the practice continues today. The remains are often placed within a container, such as an urn, and may be accompanied by other vessels and grave goods.
An urnfield is a burial ground comprising two or more cremations deposited directly into the ground without a covering barrow; some of the cremations may be interred in ceramic cinerary vessels, others may be interred loose.
Bronze Age urnfields are usually recognised by the distinctive ceramic vessels of Deverel Rimbury ware containing cremated bones. Most sites have come to light by chance, during activities such as ploughing, quarrying, development or excavation. Sometimes the cremations focus around a barrow, usually pre-dating the urnfield; in these cases this may provide the only visible surface remains.
Some of the cemeteries comprising only a few burials may have been in use for a relatively short period of time, others were in use for several centuries; that at Kimpton, Hants, for example, was in use for around 1500 years, from c2100 BC to c600 BC, and that at Bromfield for about 1000 years, from the 20th to the 10th century BC.
From the arrangement of the individual cremations in clusters of around 10-30 burials with little differentiation between them, it is thought that they may represent burials of family units. Individual sites are frequently associated with contemporary settlements; they are often found on well-drained gravel or sand, often river terraces and on good agricultural land. There seems to be a preference for lower lying land in valleys, coastal plains or, in Wessex, on the fringes of the downland with little penetration on to the higher land.
One possible Bronze Age urnfield has been identified in Buckinghamshire, at Dorney.
In an Iron-Age urnfield there are occasionally one or more associated inhumations. There is no delimiting boundary to the cemetery as a whole, although individual groups of burials within the cemetery may be set within an enclosure.
The urnfields as a whole were in use from around the third quarter of the 1st century BC; it is thought that burials from the Welwyn area and Aylesford represent the earliest group dating to between 40-30 BC and 15 BC. The majority of cemeteries, however, fall into a later period dating from c15-10 BC to after the Roman Conquest; such sites include Lexden, Essex, and King Harry Lane, St Albans.
Unenclosed Iron-Age urnfields are concentrated in the south east of the country, extending from Hampshire to the Kent and Essex coasts and the margins of the Cambridgshire Fens. Many of the known sites are located along the margins of hills such as the North Downs and the Chilterns. No Iron Age urnfields have yet been identified in Buckinghamshire.
Roman cremation cemeteries
A Roman cemetery is an area of either privately or communally owned ground set aside for the burial, celebration and remembrance of the dead. The burials may be cremations or inhumations and they are usually deposited below ground although upstanding tombs in the form of barrows or mausolea may occasionally occur. Under Roman law it was illegal, except for infants, to bury or burn the dead within a town so throughout the Roman occupation of Britain, cemeteries were set up outside the settlement to which they belonged. The known examples are usually situated outside a settlement and alongside an approach road. Location by a road may be purely a matter of convenience but some have related it to the desire to have the dead remembered and venerated by passers-by.
It is possible to date excavated Romano-British cemeteries on the basis of the burial rite and associated grave goods. There are few certain examples of Roman inhumation in Britain before the later 2nd century, the rite became common during the 3rd century and almost entirely supplanted cremation towards the end of that century.The main cemetery at Chichester was in use from c.AD 70 until the 3rd century for cremations, with inhumation burials carrying on into the 4th century. Others had a far more restricted lifespan eg. Lankhills, Winchester, where all of the burials were of 4th century date and at Chester where the earliest known inhumation cemetery was in use during the second half of the 2nd century and closed c.AD 200.
A few Roman cemeteries occur in Buckinghamshire, though no large settlements are known. A Roman cremation cemetery was excavated at Thornborough, next to two barrows that, from investigations in the nineteenth century, were also shown to cover Roman cremations. These cremations were all next to a road, the predecessor of the modern A421 from Buckingham to Milton Keynes. In fact, several roads came together at the ford and bridge crossing the River Twin nearby.
Anglo-Saxon cremation cemetery
An Anglo-Saxon cremation cemetery consists of one to several thousand cremation burials. The burials were normally placed in ceramic cremation vessels or urns, but glass or metal containers are also known, as are "unurned" cremations, with no trace of a container.
Apart from the cremation vessel, each burial normally consists of the cremated bones of at least one individual, and sometimes the remains of cremated animals. Grave goods may also have been deposited, including unburnt offerings as well as burnt items of dress jewellery etc collected from the funeral pyre. At some sites there is evidence for grave markers, including small cairns of stones.
Anglo-Saxon cremation cemeteries are normally dated to the Early Anglo-Saxon period, from the fifth to the seventh centuries AD. Cremation burials are also known from barrows.
The known distribution of cremation cemeteries is concentrated in East Anglia and the other Eastern counties, particularly Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire and Humberside. Smaller cemeteries are known from Kent and the Isle of Wight, Sussex, Hampshire, Berkshire, Wiltshire, Warwickshire, Oxfordshire, Staffordshire, Hereford and Worcester, Surrey, Buckinghamshire, Derbyshire, Northamptonshire, Gloucestershire, Dorset, Bedfordshire, Cleveland, and Lancashire.
A number of Saxon cremation cemeteries were found in the nineteenth century, such as those at Tythrop House in Kingsey and not far away in the Windmill Sandpit in Stone. Saxon cremations were found inserted into the Bronze Age barrow at Bledlow Cop. Some other early Saxon cremations were found at Winchendon Hill Farm.