Cremation has a long, storied, and occasional controversial history. Before the beginning of organized religions, cremation was practiced throughout Europe and the Middle East. However, the precise moment in history the invention of the cremation urn is debated; many historians believe the concept came from China.
The Earliest Found Instance of Cremation
Archaeological records site the Mungo Lady, the remains of a partly cremated body, as one of the world's oldest known cremations. This 1968 finding dates back to roughly 40,000 to 42,000 years old, making her the oldest human remains in Australia.
Geologist Jim Bowler discovered bones emerging from the Lake Mungo lunette (eroded dunes displaying major sedimentary layers). The following year, he returned with archaeologists John Mulvaney and Rhys Hones; with colleagues at the Australian National University, they determined the bones were that of a female human. Moreover, they discovered that Mungo Lady, as she was named, had been ritually buried. First, she had been cremated, then her bones crushed, burned again, and buried in the lunette.
Funerary Urns in Ancient Societies
Many civilizations have used funerary urns. The Urnfield culture (estimated to be between 1300 BC – 750 BC) was a late Bronze Age culture of central Europe, taking its name from its large cemeteries of urn burials.
Evidence also shows that the Celts of what is now Great Britain and the Iberian Peninsula performed cremation as a ritual. Archaeologists have also found decorative ancient burial urns in western Russia among Slavic regions.
Ancient burial urns also have been discovered in an Iron Age burial site in southern India. Researchers found pots with leaf-like decorations and a series of motifs such as animals and humans in Adichanallur, Tamil Nadu, which are very similar to the ancient prehistoric cave paintings found in the Erode and Dharmapuri districts of Tamil Nadu. Funerary urns of the Mycenean Age were more decorative and functional than ever, thanks to the ancient Greeks seeking to design pottery as beautiful as it was purposeful.
As recently as the 19th century, Maracá funerary urns of the Indigenous Amazonian tribes in South America were discovered. Glued to one of the urns, researchers found blue and white glass beads around the arm, forming a sort of bracelet. The glass beads suggest contact between the Amerindians and the first Europeans to enter the region.
In Ancient Greece, cremation was the norm, and the ashes were typically placed within a painted Greek vase. In particular, the vase was called the lekythos, a specific shape of vase used for holding oil in funerary rituals. Romans placed urns in a collective tomb called a columbarium, and cremation urns were commonly used in early Anglo-Saxon England and many pre-Columbian cultures.
The controversy over burial cremation and the decline of cremation coincides with the dawn of early Christianity. A sharp decline in cremation and the use of urns can be marked throughout Europe, as Christians at the time saw it as a Pagan tradition and, therefore, considered it sinful and an affront to their culture and beliefs. Christians at the time saw cremation as a form of fire worship and human sacrifice, which directly opposed their beliefs in the resurrection of the body.
By 400 A.D., burying the dead was the only acceptable form of final disposition in Europe, and, except for the circumstances surrounding plague or war, it would remain this way for over one thousand years.
It wasn't until the 20th century that the religious controversy and stigma surrounding cremation began to fade. The re-emergence of cremation as acceptable is believed to be the result of the gradual acceptance of it by the Roman Catholic Church under certain conditions.
The Oldest Known Burial Urns
Archaeologists discovered a group of Neolithic communities they named the Peiligang culture within the Yi-Luo river basin in the Henan Province, China. The culture is estimated to have existed between 7000 and 5000 BC, and over 100 sites have been identified with the Peiligang culture, nearly all of them in a relatively compact area of about 100 square kilometers just south of the river along its banks.
Until archaeologists and researchers discover and unearth further evidence, we can safely say that the earliest ancient burial urns originated in the Neolithic period in China. Experts have found pottery that dates back to 29,000 to 25,000 B.C. However, they can only guess how it was used until further evidence provides more insight.
The site at Jiahu is the earliest site associated with Peiligang culture, and there are many similarities between the main group of Peiligan settlements and the Jaihu culture, which was isolated several day's travel to the south of the main group.
The Jaihu site is one of the earliest sites where ceremonial burial urns have been discovered. Ceremonial objects, such as poetry or tortoise shells, often accompanied the burial urns. These burian offerings found at Jaihu are believed to be linked to the individual's social status or the community's labor specialization.
From archaic and arcane origins to its storied and eventful past, cremation and using urns for human ashes remains a profoundly personal and cultural choice. In today's world, many view cremation urns as an essential aspect of the grieving and healing process while honoring and memorializing the life of a loved one. Urns can be highly embellished and personalized or a simple yet undeniably elegant and natural means of accepting and processing grief today.