Unlocking the secrets of cremated human remains

Temporality, gendered mobility and family relations in Late Bronze Age Austria


In the Late Bronze Age (c. 1300–800 BC), large cemeteries with several hundred burials reflect a new way of dealing with the dead: cremation. The new mode of burial, a dramatic increase in the burial record and the expansion of settlement areas into new landscapes indicate population increase, possibly linked to large-scale population movements.

Until recently, understanding people’s geographic origin and mobility in the Late Bronze Age was hindered by limitations of analytical methods for cremated bones. New bio-archaeological methods such as strontium isotope analysis can now be applied to burnt bone to differentiate locals from foreigners and to track individual mobility and movements of groups. In addition, new techniques of ageing, sexing and dating cremated human remains have been developed. These offer fresh opportunities to reconstruct ritual practices and individual life histories, which allow the investigation of gendered mobility and family relations in the Late Bronze Age. Women might have played a significant role in shaping Late Bronze Age societies through marriage and kinship networks; higher levels of mobility in women might suggest patrilocal residence patterns.

This project is the first in Austria to utilize a multi-science approach to investigate whether or not 1) the change of burial rites at the onset of the Late Bronze Age was a local development or triggered by newcomers; 2) the deposition of cremated human bones took place directly after cremation, or if remains of ancestors were curated; 3) gendered patterns of migration can be detected and explained, and 4) individuals buried together grew up in the same or different environments.

Methods include strontium isotope analysis of human remains and comparative environmental samples to identify local and non-local individuals; osteological age and sex assessment of cremated human remains; tooth cementum annulation analysis to support age assessment; as well as gender, age and status analysis based on grave goods to understand how identity categories intersect with aspects of mobility.

The study is based on the cemeteries of Getzersdorf, Inzersdorf, Franzhausen-Kokoron and Statzendorf in the Lower Austrian Traisen river valley, which include over 1000 burials spanning the entire trajectory of the Late Bronze Age into the Early Iron Age (c. 1300–600 BC). In order to track social changes through time, a chronological framework for the Late Bronze Age will be established by combining artefact-based and radiocarbon dating of selected funerary contexts.

Data obtained in this project will significantly advance our knowledge of ritual practices, gendered mobility and social relations during the Late Bronze Age in Lower Austria as well as develop a bundle of much-needed methods to unlock the secrets of cremated human remains.