Agriculture, Inequality and Cremation in Iron Age Spain

Written by: Katy Meyers Emery

Primary Source: Bones Don’t Lie

One of the major debates in archaeology is when do we begin to see inequality among human groups, and what caused this this to happen. Social inequality has been defined within most archaeological studies as being a state of a community where the economic surplus is taken by a subset of the larger group. Without this appropriation of economic resources, any inequality is perceived as temporary and unlikely to shift the group dynamics. This definition of inequality requires that the community be gathering more than enough resources to survive, allowing for certain individuals or factions within the group to have more than others. Based on this assumption, it has led to the conclusion that the emergence of inequality must be related to the beginning of agriculture and sedentism. Basically the argument is this: agriculture increases the surplus for a community, this reduces uncertainty in life which allows for demographic growth, the population becomes tied to the land, and with growth and land ownership comes social complexity, and certain individuals are able to gain unequal control over the surplus. Of course, the process is much more complex and variable for different periods and regions. However, the burial practices of populations going through this transition to inequality, sedentism and agriculture can be enlightening about how this process occurs, and how the group deals with these changes.

Example of Iron Age Iberian cremation, via

Example of Iron Age Iberian cremation, via Arenas-Esteban 2003

A new study by Rodríguez (2014) examines the relationship between the emergence of cremation, and the transition to a more sedentary and agricultural lifestyle in Iron Age Spain. His research focuses on the Tagus region, a broad, asymmetric basin which crosses the middle of the Iberian

Peninsula and is surrounded by mountains on both sides, the Central System and the Toledo Mountains. Due to its location, the weather is suitable for growing cereals, although there are low rates of rainfall and a high seasonal, climatic variability that can make agriculture uncertain. The shift from the Bronze Age to Iron Age in this area dates to around 800 BC, and is defined as a switch from mobile hunting and gathering to permanent sedentism and agriculture. This transition is also marked by the emergence of a new funerary tradition in the region: real cemeteries used by communities over a period of time and the use of cremation to dispose of human remains. Despite the emergence of cremation being one of the most dramatic changes with this era, there has been little research into why cremation was chosen as a disposal method and what significance it had.

The site under analysis is Arroyo Culebro D, which is found 6 km from Madrid, and was excavated in 2000. The cemetery has only 30 burial pits, but does have evidence of a ustrinum- the site where the bodies are burned upon a pyre. The majority of these remains were placed in urns and then buried at the site. One inhumation was found at the site, and a number of cremated remains were placed in the grave pit without an urn, but covered by a pot. The cemetery was only used for a short period of time during the 6th century BC. The urns were primarily undecorated, but some have flaring details. Grave goods include bronze bracelets, buckles, tweezers, quartz stones and bone pendants.

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Map of the cemetery groupings, Rodríguez (2014)

Analysis of the cemetery discovered that there were three different groups divided by space and grave goods: 1) adult individuals with metallic grave goods (although one infant and one juvenile also fit this category) that were buried in organized rows, 2) adult individuals with only pottery and no clear spatial patterning, and 3) a mixed group on the west side of the cemetery that includes most juvenile and infant burials, as well as the only inhumation and double grave, and have a variety of grave goods. Based on this analysis, Rodríguez (2014) argues that there was a clear distinction between the prestigious group 1 and not so prestigious group 2. Groups were becoming spatially different, with different grave goods to show their varied status. The presence of subadults in group 1, supports the idea that the status of this group was not acquired, but was based on familial ties. The clear spatial divisions and grave good differences aid the interpretation that social inequality was beginning to appear in this community, and even in death groups were trying to show their prestige and status. Rodríguez (2014) concludes that this cemetery supports the assertion that agriculture and sedentism lead to social inequality.

Obviously, this is a very small sample, and there are a lot of remaining questions I want to ask- like what if the variation in grave goods and space is simply family variation and doesn’t mean anything about status? What if the variation is related to occupational choice or cause of death? Given the context of this culture that is dealing with sedentism and agriculture, differences in burial likely do relate to changes in the social structure. Other work by Arenas-Esteban (2003- click link for article) supports this conclusion that during the Iron Age, cremation burials tend to show signs of wealthier individuals and the clear show of status in burial.

Works Cited


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Katy Meyers Emery
Katy is currently a graduate student studying mortuary archaeology at Michigan State University. Her academic interests are in mortuary and bioarchaeology, with a specific interest in connecting the physical remains to the mortuary context. Along with this, she is also interested in Digital Humanities, and the integration of technology into academia, as well as public archaeology and outreach.
Katy Meyers Emery

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