Excavation of cinerary urns with an integrated approach


Place: Lyon, musée de la civilisation gallo-romaine

Date : October 2017


  • Dominique Frère, leader
  • Solenn de Larminat, anthropologist
  • Rémi Corbineau, palynologist
  • Nicolas Garnier, chemist


Mission: Laboratory excavations of Roman cinerary urns from the necropolis of the street Chapeau Rouge(investigated by Armand Desbats in 2000) which included sampling for palynological studies and molecular chemistry analysis.

Scientific objectives :Recognize funerary ritual actions in particolar those of the deposition of human remains in the urn. Identify the biological products (such as plants, honey, milk, wine, scented oil …) involved during these rituals.

Methodology :The excavation of the urns is carried out in a stratigraphic way, removing the contents with steps of 2 – 3 cm of thickness. For each step a zenithal photograph, a survey, two representative sections and a description are realized. The stratigraphical position of the urns themselves and that of their corresponding sets is scrupulously observed and noted in order to gain as much as possible information to characterize the moment of their use (deposit on the pyre or in the urn) and  their role in the ritual.

The osteological study :The bones found in each step are collected, identified, weighed and counted. Depending on the vertical distribution of the different parts of the skeletal apparatus inside the urn (anatomical or non-anatomical logic), it will be possible to obtain information on the manner and the sequence of bone removal from the pyre and those of the urn filling. Subsequently by comparing the bony masses of the individual studied with those of reference it will be determined if there are missing parts and therefore if these were left at the pyre or located elsewhere. Obviously, the age and sex of the deceased (or of the deceaseds in case of a multiple cremation in the same urn) will be estimated and any bone or dental pathologies will be described. The color of the bones which varies according to the temperature reached by the pyre and the time of exposure to fire will also be observed in order to characterize the structure of the pyre. Associated with the results of the other studies, the combination of archaeo-anthropological data will thus allow to acquire information about : the identity of the deceased, the pyre’s stucture, the manner of collecting bones and their deposition within the urn.

The Chemical analysis:Several types of samples are made : 1- The sampling of the inner surface of the bottom of the urns examinated allows to detect and identify the nature of offerings, liquid and / or solids substances which have decomposed with time. 2- Sediment samples taken from three superimposed strata(bottom, mid-height and at top of the vessel) permits to detect possible libations of liquid materials, including dairy products and wine in the urns before their closure. The upper fragments of the bone masses were also collected for the same purpose. 3- The glass unguentaria (found inside two of the urns excavated) were also emptied and their internal walls rinsed / extracted with organic solvents to trace their original content. It should be noted that a sample of sediment, outside the urns or taken above them (highest stratum, phase 1), is essential to evaluate the pollution (background noise) of the site and to validate the reasoning and the interpretation of the markers identified in the urns.

Foodstuffs, Dairy products, Fermented beverages, Medicinal and Cosmetic products, Perfumes, Aromatic materials in the Mediterranean and West-European areas. This scientific notebook presents the bioarchaeology research programs of the Temos laboratory (CNRS, UMR 9016).

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