Ward, Stacey, 2011. Burning Issues: An Investigation into the Cremation Practices Used in the Historic Lan Xang Period of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.

Bone fragments remaining after cremation can be used to provide information on the cremation practices of ancient cultures. This is possible as the study of bone colours can indicate what type of fire was used for the cremation and the position of the deceased during the cremation procedure (Symes et al. 2008). The type and depth of heat fractures are linked to the amount of flesh remaining on a body at the time of cremation, and therefore can reveal how long after death the cremation occurred (Whyte 2001).

In this way, cremation practices have been examined globally, but there is a dearth of information on past cremation methods in Southeast Asia. With the discovery of archaeological human remains in Vientiane in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic in 2006 - 2007, an opportunity arose to investigate the cremation practices used in the Lan Xang period of Lao history (1353 – c. 1695 CE) (Evans 2002). The human remains, constituting a total of 25 people, consisted of individuals that had been cremated and interred in jars, cremated and scattered, or buried without cremation. While this was a small sample, it provided a rare opportunity to contribute to the limited knowledge on cremation practices in the Lan Xang Kingdom.

This thesis aimed to contribute to the clarification of the cremation process used during the Lan Xang period, to identify variations within this process based on age, sex, pathology, burial weight, burial goods, burial jars and geographic location, and to clarify the issue of the archaeological dating of the inhumation burial BHB01.

Results showed that Lan Xang people were often cremated after their bodies had decomposed for a short time. Patterns of which skeletal elements were represented suggested individuals were cremated in a supine position, and cremation temperatures, which ranged from 485 – 940°C, were consistent with cremation on a wooden pyre. Skeletal temperature patterns suggested the pyre was ignited around its edges.

Small sample size and poor representation of the remains made the identification of variation within the sample difficult. However, it appeared that age and type of death, as indicated by skeletal pathology, were most likely to have caused the variations observed in the Vientiane sample. Age was a main variation because Lan Xang children were cremated when modern children are not. It is also possible that pathology, and therefore the type of death, explains why some cremation burials included burial items or were buried in different jar types to their contemporaries.

Analysis of the inhumation burial BHB01’s burial position, burial goods and burial depth suggested an archaeological date of the Iron Age (420 BCE – 500 CE) (Higham and Higham 2009), but radiocarbon dating was suggested in order to clarify this issue.

It was concluded that Lan Xang cremation practices were similar to modern Thai practices, but were influenced by age at death and type of death. Despite the inherent flaws identified in the methodology used for analysing cremation burials, this thesis shows that cremation burials can nevertheless provide valuable information on a culture.