Oak, ash and pine: the role of firewood in funerary rituals at the Roman site of Reza Vella (Ourense, Spain)

  • María Martín-SeijoEmail author
  • Mario César Vila
Original Paper


The aim of this paper is to reflect on the role of firewood in Roman burial rites of cremation. The case study of Reza Vella (Ourense, Spain) provides valuable information about the uses and the role of plants in a funerary context in northwest Iberia. Archaeobotanical data from Roman cemeteries in this area are very scarce, but they provide valuable information on the funerary customs introduced by the Roman Empire to the provinces, and how this interaction could be reflected in the management of firewood. The structures related to cremation rites include primary and secondary contexts. Charcoal remains recovered inside the structures, of bustum type, are the remains of the fuel burned during the cremation of the corpses. In these primary contexts, the ubiquitous taxa were Quercus sp. deciduous, Fraxinus sp. and Pinus spp. Other taxa, such as Salix/Populus, Prunus sp. and Arbutus unedo, have also been identified in secondary burials. A combination of different factors probably determined their selection for cremation purposes, such as their availability in the environs of the necropolis, differential access to wood resources, their heat potential, technical aspects related to their exploitation and even conceptual aspects, such as their symbolic meaning.


Firewood Charcoal analysis Roman cremation Northwest Iberia 



María Martín-Seijo was funded by a Post-Doc Grant Plan I2C mod. B with the project “MATERIAL-Materiality and Material Culture: Wood and Other Plant-based Materials in Archaeological Contexts.” The charcoal analysis was developed at the Laboratory of the Study Group for the Prehistory of NW Iberia-Archaeology, Antiquity and Territory (GEPN-AAT), and partially supported by P&A Arqueólogos S.L. (2011-CE274). The authors would like to thank the archaeological team, namely Guillermo Santamaría Gámez, and the promoters of the archaeological works—Adif and COPASA. We also thank Emilio Abad Vidal, Brais Currás Refojos, José María Eguileta Franco, Alfredo Seara Carballo and Cristina Vilas Boas Braga for their help. We are grateful to Clíodhna Ní Lionáin and Nick Dutfield for reviewing the English version of the text.


  1. Aira MJ, Uzquiano P (1996) Análisis polínico e identificación de carbones en necrópolis gallegas de época romana. In: A. Rodríguez Colmenero (coord.) Lucus Augusti I. El amanecer de una ciudad, 47–53. A Coruña, Fundación Pedro Barrié de la MazaGoogle Scholar
  2. Allison PM (2015) Characterizing roman artifacts to investigate gendered practices in contexts without sexed bodies. Am J Archaeol 119(1):103–123. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Arias F (1992) A Romanización de Galicia. Vigo, A Nosa TerraGoogle Scholar
  4. Bel V (1996) Étude spatiale de sept incinérations primaires gallo-romaines de la région lyonnaise. Bull Mém Soc Anthropol Paris 8(3):207–222CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Blanco-Freijeiro A, Fuste M, García-Alén A (1961) La necrópolis galaico-romana de La Lanzada (Noalla, Pontevedra). Cuadernos de Estudios Gallegos XVI(49):141–158Google Scholar
  6. Bouby L, Marinval P (2004) Fruits and seeds from Roman cremations in Limagne (Massif Central) and the spatial variability of plant offerings in France. J Arch Sci 31(1):77–86. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Caamaño JM (2000) Excavaciones en el Campamento de Cidadela (A Coruña). Brigantium 12:199–207Google Scholar
  8. Caracuta V, Fiorentino G (2012) Riti funerari e paesaggio vegetale nel territorio di Ausculum: il contributo dell’analisi archeobotanica per lo studio della necropoli di via Giuseppe Ciotta. In: Corrente M (ed) Lo spreco necessario Il lusso nelle tombe di Ascoli Satriano. Foggia, Claudio Grenzi Editore, pp 160–164Google Scholar
  9. Caracuta V, Fiorentino G (2017) Plant rituals and fuel in roman cemeteries of Apulia (SE Italy). In: Livarda A, Madgwick R, Riera Mora S (eds) The bioarchaeology of ritual and religion. Oxbow books, Oxford, pp 58–68Google Scholar
  10. Castiglioni E, Motella De Carlo S, Rottoli M (1992) II combustibile nelle cremazioni dell’Italia nord-orientale. Bull Soc Botanique Fr Actualités Botaniques 139(2–4):311–318CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Cenzon-Salvayre C (2014). Le bûcher funéraire dans l’Antiquité: une approche archéologique, bioarchéologique et historique d’après l’étude des structures de crémation en Gaule méridionale. PhD Thesis. Le Mans, Université du MaineGoogle Scholar
  12. Cenzon-Salvayre C, Durand A (2012) Annexe I. Analyse anthracologique de l’aire de crémation B1 de la nécropole d’Ambrussum. In: Une nécropole du second Age du Fer à Ambrussum, Hérault, 239–245Google Scholar
  13. Cerezo-Román J, Williams H (2014) Future directions for the archaeology of cremation. In: Kuijt I, Quinn CP, Cooney G (eds) Transformation by fire: the archaeology of cremation in cultural context, 240–255. University of Arizona PressGoogle Scholar
  14. César M (2011) Intervenciones arqueológicas en el yacimiento Capela de Santa Catalina de Reza Vella, Ourense (GA32054003), 2010–2011. Construcción del corredor Norte-Noroeste de Alta Velocidad Ourense-Santiago. Tramo de acceso a la estación de Ourense. Unpublished technical reportGoogle Scholar
  15. Chabal L (1997) Forêts et sociétés en Languedoc (Néolithique final, Antiquité tardive): l’anthracologie, méthode et paléoécologie. Ed. Maison des Sciences de l'Homme, ParisGoogle Scholar
  16. Challinor D (2006) The wood charcoal from Pepper Hill. Northfleet, CTRL Specialist Report SeriesGoogle Scholar
  17. Cooremans B (2008) The Roman cemeteries of Tienen and Tongeren: results from the archaeobotanical analysis of the cremation graves. Veg Hist Archaeobotany 17:3–13. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Coubray S (2012) Combustibles, modes opératoires des bûchers et rituels: l’analyse anthracologique. In: Andringa W, Duday H, Lepetz S (eds) Mourir à Pompéi. Fouille d’un quartier funéraire de la nécropole romaine de Porta Nocera (2003-2007), 1433—1449. Ecole Française de RomeGoogle Scholar
  19. De Cleene M, Lejeune MC (2002) Compendium of symbolic and ritual plants in Europe. Trees and Shrubs. Ghent, Man & Culture PublishersGoogle Scholar
  20. Deforce K, Haneca K (2012) Ashes to ashes. Fuelwood selection in Roman cremation rituals in northern Gaul. J Archaeol Sci 39(5):1338–1348. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Dillon M (2006) People and past environments. Towards an anthropology of woodlands based on analysis of wood and charcoal from archaeological contexts. Unpublished MSc Thesis, National University of IrelandGoogle Scholar
  22. Eguileta JM (2008) Ourense, sucesión de ciudades estratificadas por el tiempo: el entramado romano. Porta da Aira: Revista de Historia del Arte Orensano 12:51–106Google Scholar
  23. Fabre L, Pernaud JM, Thiébault S (2003) Feu sacré. Revue archéologique de Picardie 21(1):139–146CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Fahlander F, Oestigaard T (2008) The materiality of death. Bodies, burials, beliefs. Archaeo Press, Oxford, pp 1–16Google Scholar
  25. Figueiral I (1995) Charcoal analysis and the history of Pinus pinaster (cluster pine) in Portugal. Rev Palaeobot Palynol 89(3):441–454. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Figueiral I (1996) Wood resources in north-west Portugal: their availability and use from the late Bronze Age to the Roman period. Veg Hist Archaeobot 5:121–129. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Figueiral I, Fabre L, Bel V (2010) Considerations on the nature and origin of wood-fuel from Gallo-Roman cremations in the Languedoc region (Southern France). Quaternaire 21(3):325–331. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Figueiral I, Fabre L, Tardy CH (2011). Charcoal analysis in Preventive Archaeology: combining culture heritage management with scientific research in the A75 motorway (Clermont l’Hérault-Béziers, Southern France). Saguntum, Extra-11, 75–76Google Scholar
  29. Figueiral I, Ivorra S, Breuil JY, Bel V, Houix B (2017) Gallo-Roman Nîmes (southern France): a case study on firewood supplies for urban and proto-urban centers (1st BC–3rd AD). Quat Int 458:103–112. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Flohr Sørensen T, Bille M (2008) Flames of transformation: the role of fire in cremation practices. World Archaeol 40(2):253–267. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Fontes L, Martins M, Vilas Boas Braga C, Braga J, Sendas J, Magalhães F (2008) Escavaçoes arqueológicas no Quarteirao dos Antigos CTT (Braga), Resultados Preliminares. Al-madan (Série II) 16:5–9Google Scholar
  32. Gale R, Cutler D (2000) Plants in Archaeology. Identification manual of vegetative plant materials used in Europe and the southern Mediterranean to c. 1500. Kew, Westbury and Royal Botanic Gardens. 6Google Scholar
  33. Hather JG (2000) The identification of the northern European woods. A guide for archaeologists and conservators. Archetype Publications, LondonGoogle Scholar
  34. Hristova I (2015) The use of plants in ritual context during Antiquity in Bulgaria: overview of the archaeobotanical evidence. Bulgarian e-J Archaeol 5:117–135Google Scholar
  35. Huntley J (2010) A review of wood and charcoal recovered from archaeological excavations in northern England. English Heritage, LondonGoogle Scholar
  36. Kelley AC (2008) Trial by fire: a comparison of provincial cremations within the Roman empire and the implications for cultural analysis. Unpublished Thesis, Wesleyan UniversityGoogle Scholar
  37. Kreuz A (2000) Functional and conceptual archaeobotanical data from Roman cremations. In: Pearce J, Millet M, Struck M (eds) Burial, society and context in the roman world. Oxbow Books, Oxford, pp 45–51Google Scholar
  38. López-Costas O (2015) Taphonomy and burial context of the Roman/post-Roman funerary areas (2nd to 6th centuries AD) of a Lanzada, NW Spain. Estud Quaternário/Quaternary Stud 12:55–67Google Scholar
  39. López-Merino L, Peña-Chocarro L, Ruiz-Alonso M, López-Sáez JA, Sánchez-Palencia FJ (2010) Beyond nature: the management of a productive cultural landscape in Las Médulas area (El Bierzo, León, Spain) during pre-Roman and Roman times. Plant Biosyst 144(4):909–923. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Marconetto MF (2008) Linnaeus en el Ambato. El uso de la clasificación taxonómica en arqueobotánica. In: Archila S, Giovannetti M, Lema V (comp.) Arqueobotánica y teoría arqueológica. Discusiones desde Suramérica, 143–165. Colombia, Ed. UniandesGoogle Scholar
  41. Marguerie D, Hunot J-Y (2007) Charcoal analysis and dendrology: data from archaeological sites in north-western France. J Archaeol Sci 34:1417–1433. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Martín Seijo M, Piqué R (2013) New data about wood use in the northwest of the Iberian peninsula. In: Damblon F (ed) Proceedings of the Fourth International Meeting of Anthracology. Brussels, BAR International Series, pp 143–154Google Scholar
  43. Martín-Seijo M (2013) A xestión do bosque e do monte dende a Idade do Ferro á época romana no noroeste da península Ibérica: consumo de combustibles e produción de manufacturas en madeira. PhD Thesis. Santiago, University of Santiago de CompostelaGoogle Scholar
  44. Martín-Seijo M, Carrión Y (2012) Shaping wood: woodworking during the Iron Age and Roman period in the northwest of the Iberian Peninsula. Saguntum, Extra-13:135–144Google Scholar
  45. Mattingly D (2011) Imperialism, power and identity. Experiencing the Roman empire. Princeton University Press, New JerseyGoogle Scholar
  46. McKinley J (2000) Phoenix rising: aspects of cremation in roman Britain. In: Pearce J, Millet M, Struck M (eds) Burial, society and context in the roman world. Oxbow Books, Oxford, pp 38–44Google Scholar
  47. McKinley J (2014) Cremation in archaeological contexts. In: Smith C (ed) Encyclopedia of global archaeology. Springer, New York, pp 1730–1738CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Moskal-del-Hoyo M (2012) The use of wood in funerary pyres: random gathering or special selection of species? Case study of three necropolises from Poland. J Archaeol Sci 39(11):3386–3395. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Noy D (2000a) ‘Half-burnt on an emergency pyre’: Roman cremations which went wrong. Greece and Rome (Second Series) 47(2):186–196. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Noy D (2000b) Building a Roman funeral pyre. Antichthon 34:30–45CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Parcero C, Cobas I (2004) Iron age archaeology of the northwest Iberian peninsula. e-Keltoi J Interdiscipl Celtic Stud 6:1–72Google Scholar
  52. Pearce J (2000) Burial, society and context in the provincial Roman world. In: Pearce J, Millett M, Struck M (eds) Burial, society and context in the Roman world. Oxbow Books, Oxford, pp 1–12Google Scholar
  53. Pearce J (2015) A ‘civilised’death? The interpretation of provincial Roman grave good assemblages. In: Rasmus Brandt J, Prusac M, Roland H (eds) Death and changing rituals. Function and meaning in ancient funerary practice. Oxford, Oxbow Books, pp 223–247Google Scholar
  54. Pearce J (2017) Introduction: death as a process in Roman funeary archaeology. In: Pearce J, Weekes J (eds) Death as a process. The archaeology of the roman funeral. Oxford, Oxbow Books, pp 1–26Google Scholar
  55. Peña-Chocarro L, Pérez-Jordà G, Alonso N, Antolín F, Teira-Brión A, Tereso JP, Montes E, López D (2017) Roman and medieval crops in the Iberian Peninsula: a first overview of seeds and fruits from archaeological sites. Quat Int.
  56. Polo M, García E, De Haro Pozo S (2009) El ritual de cremación en Valentia (ss. II a.C.-III d.C.): análisis bioantropológico preliminar. Investigaciones histórico-médicas sobre salud y enfermedad en el pasado. Actas del Congreso Nacional de Paleopatología, 757-763. Valencia, Grupo Paleolab & Sociedad Española de PaleopatologíaGoogle Scholar
  57. Poux M (2009) De la veillée au tombeau. In: Goudineau C (dir.) Rites funéraires à Lvgdvnvm, 25–46. Paris, Ed. ErranceGoogle Scholar
  58. Rottoli M, Castiglioni E (2011) Plant offerings from Roman cremations in northern Italy: a review. Veg Hist Archaeobot 20:495–506. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Rovira N, Chabal L (2008) A foundation offering at the Roman port of Lattara (Lattes, France): the plant remains. Veg Hist Archaeobot 17(1):191–200. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Schweingruber FH (1990) Anatomy of European woods. Birmensdorf, Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Landscape and Snow ResearchGoogle Scholar
  61. Schweingruber FH, Börner A, Schulze E-D (2008) Atlas of woody plant stems. Evolution, structure and environmental modifications. Springer Berlag, BerlinGoogle Scholar
  62. Segura S, Torres J (2009) Historia de las plantas en el mundo antiguo. Universidad de Deusto-Editorial CSIC, Bilbao-MadridGoogle Scholar
  63. Tereso JP (2009) Plant macrofossils from the Roman settlement of Terronha de Pinhovelo, northwest Iberia. Veg Hist Archaeobot 18(6):489–501. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Teira A (2013) Dentro y fuera del bosque: La gestión del Prunus Avium/cerasus en época romana y medieval en el NW ibérico. ArkeoGazte: Revista de arqueología-Arkelogia aldizkaria 3:99–115Google Scholar
  65. Théry-Parisot I (2001) Économie des combustibles au Paléolithique: Expérimentation, taphonomie, anthracologie. CNRS, ParisGoogle Scholar
  66. Théry-Parisot I, Chabal L, Chrzavzez J (2010) Anthracology and taphonomy, from wood gathering to charcoal analysis. A review of the taphonomic processes modifying charcoal assemblages, in archaeological contexts. Palaeogeogr Palaeocl 291(1–2):142–153. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Toynbee JMC (1971) Death and burial in the Roman world. The John Hopkins University Press, BaltimoreGoogle Scholar
  68. Vaz FC, Martín-Seijo M, Carneiro S, Tereso JP (2016) Waterlogged plant remains from the Roman healing spa of Aquae Flaviae (Chaves, Portugal): utilitarian objects, timber, fruits and seeds. Quat Int 404:86–103. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Veal RJ (2017) The politics and economics of ancient forests: timber and fuel as levers of Greco-roman control. In: Derron P (ed) Economie et inégalité: Ressources, échanges et pouvoir dans l’Antiquité classique, 63(8):317–367Google Scholar
  70. Weekes J (2008) Classification and analysis of archaeological contexts for the reconstruction of early Romano-British cremation funerals. Britannia 39:145–160. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Williams H (2004) Death warmed up. The agency of bodies and bones in early anglo-saxon cremation rites. J Mater Cult 9(3):263–291. CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.GEPN-AAT Grupo de Estudos para a Prehistoria do NW Ibérico-Arqueoloxía, Antigüidade e Territorio (GI-1534), Dep. HistoriaUniversidade de Santiago de CompostelaSantiago de CompostelaSpain
  2. 2.HORIZONTENORTE—Arqueoloxía, Patrimonio, Historia e Enxeñaría Cultural, Arquitecto Domingo A. de AndradeSantiago de CompostelaSpain

Personalised recommendations