During the late Bronze Age, cremation as a burial rite was introduced as a practice within Europe. However, at that time, inhumation was still the majority cultural rite. In the early Iron Age period, cremation became the dominant, nearly exclusively practiced burial custom.
These alterations in the burial customs have attracted scholarly interest for a long time. The Urnfield Culture appellation derives from the custom of cremating the dead and placing their ashes in urns (pottery) which were then buried in individual graves or in tumuli.
The early Celtic people of the Urnfield Culture lived throughout Europe, from the Baltic to Italy. The cremation burials all had a consistent setting, indicating a sort of ritualistic custom. Some graves contained ceramics and many contained swords and knives buried alongside the urns.
In the tumuli at Argos, some of the commonly found grave goods were: twisted arched fibula, arched fibula with two discs, bronze rings with spiral terminals, and handmade pottery. The large cast arched fibulae found at Argos are of particular interest because they have parallels with the Urnfield material found in Sicily and the Croation coast.
In fact, the Western Balkans contains many locations of cremations in tumuli. The cemeteries of the Paraćin and Donja Brnjica cultural groups compare especially well with the tumuli in the Argolid. Those two cultural groups flourished in southern Serbia and Kosovo mainly during the 13th century BC. The usual form of internment was cremation burial, often in tumuli. The cremated remains of the deceased were placed in urns, which were closed with bowls. This practice can be paralleled to the inurned cremations in the Argive tumuli. The Argive custom of placing the small open vessel upside down in the urn finds its correspondence in a grave in the cemetery of Paraćin.
Cremation burials in tumuli have a long tradition in the Western Balkans and can be traced back to at least the beginning of the Middle Bronze Age. Not only are cremation tumuli found in Serbia, but they are also characteristic for the cemeteries of the Barice-Gredani group in the northern part of Bosnia-Herzogovina. However, the cremated remains of the deceased were deposited directly in pits, chamber tombs, and not in urns in this group.
Amphorae and amphoriskoi were the most common type of urn. Both belly-handled and rim-handled amphorae were used. The second most common type of urn found in the tumulus is the jug. However, by the time of the Iron Age, jugs were no longer used as urns.
In Hungary, the Urnfield Culture cemetery of Budapest-Bekasmegyer is one of the largest in the region. Two-thirds of the 324 cremation burials found there contained urns (as part of the rite), while the rest were scattered ash burials.
This cemetery is located on the bank of the Danube River at the northern fringes of modern Budapest. During the Late Bronze Age this area was one of intense settlement. The Danube River Valley was important in establishing the region as a link between western Slovakian Plain and the Hungarian Plain.
Researchers have known about the Bekasmegyer cemetery since the 1960s. Excavations began in 1967 and continued until 1983. Of the 477 graves scattered across the excavated area, 324 graves can be assigned to the Urnfield Culture. The Late Bronze Age cemetery contains approximately 500 individuals.
As is typical for this time period, the most common metal artifacts in the tumuli were forms of fibulae, knives, and razors. Furthermore, elements of the northern Lausathian Culture are found in the Danube cremation cemeteries.
The Urnfield Culture in Croatia is quite extensive and covers the entire timespan of the culture. One of the most well-known cremations cemeteries is the Velika Gorica (Zagreb) site. This site is located right in the middle of the present day town of Velika Gorica, which was formerly a suburb of Zagreb. It lies on the territory south of the river Sava.
At the Velika Gorica site, there were found three distinguished types of graves:
- The first group were the graves with the bones inside the urns, which were placed into the grave pit. Grave goods were rare in this group and were mostly placed in the urn.
- The second group were the graves with a vessel-urn. However, the bones were placed on the bottom of the pit together with charcoal. Grave goods were most frequent in this group and were placed in the urn as well as beneath it on the bottom of the grave pit.
- The third group were the graves without urns and only with bones inside the grave pit with charcoal. The grave goods were mostly some pieces of pottery.
A total of 296 artifacts were found in Velika Gorsica. The most abundant grave good found was bracelets. The second most abundant type of artifact were ceramic vessels and necklaces. Cups and bowls were also common grave goods found, while pots, especially those with a hole, were used as urns.
Other items found include fibulae, spindle whorls, hair rings, bronze rings, knives, axes, razors, and swords.
The most characteristic find at the Velika Gorsica cemetery are the urns themselves. They mostly have the form of a vessel with a single hole in its middle part. This is a unique characteristic of this site compared to other sites in the southern Alpine region. The holes, it is speculated, were meant to be a kind of recipient for the soul of the deceased.
The dominant type of fibula found is the spectacle fibula. This type is represented as small spectacle fibula with a figure eight loop. It has been found thus far at tumuli throughout Europe at prominent sites in Italy, Greece, Croatia, Germany, Slovenia, Hungary, Serbia, England, Scotland, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Bosnia, and so on.
Twisted torcs were also found in numerous fragments. In fact, they were the most common grave good found. This type of necklace appears in hoards during the time of the Urnfield Culture. Hair pins and spindle whorls were abundant in female graves as well.
The significance of the Velika Gorica cemetery lies in the find of the warrior’s grave. Finds such as jewelry and toiletries are the most abundant. However, the warrior elite were typically found in larger burial mounds.
In spite of the distinct local and regional traits of specific groups of the Urnfield Culture, these were communities that communicated with one another and shared common traditions. This is demonstrated by the uniformity in the use of cremation burials, mostly in urns, but also similarities in the designs.
The cremation burial rite used throughout the period known as the Urnfield Culture remained deeply rooted during the latter Hallstatt period which started towards the end of the 9th century BC. Although inhumation began to become more common during the Hallstatt period and later, the ritual cremation custom of the Urnfield Culture is something worth noting. Researchers continue to uncover more tumulus from this time period and the thread that binds each location together reveals a wonderful mystery.