Corinium‘s dead: Excavating the Tetbury Road Roman cemetery

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Recent excavations just outside the walls of Roman Cirencester revealed the unexpected survival of parts of a town cemetery — and gave the best glimpse for 40 years of Corinium‘s occupants. Neil Holbrook, Ed McSloy, and Jonny Geber explained the results to Matthew Symonds.  

Excavations at the Bridges Garage site revealed the unexpected preservation of pockets of the former Roman cemetery. There were three intact cremation burials and 71 inhumations, including this Late Roman female, laid to rest with a mass of bracelets and bangles. Clustered together, the artefacts are visible under the skeleton’s right arm, beside the scale. Study revealed that the objects date to the late 3rd or 4th century.

It started as a watching brief in 2011. Though Bridges Garage in Cirencester was known to lie on the site of a former Roman cemetery, it was believed that deep petrol tanks had long since destroyed any archaeology. When the garage was originally built in the 1960s on open ground beside Tetbury Road, in Cirencester’s western outskirts, it triggered salvage recording by Richard Reece. He managed to record 46 cremation burials and eight inhumations as the site was dug away around him. Fifty years later, as the bulldozers rolled in once more, it quickly became apparent that pockets of the Roman cemetery had survived intact. Cotswold Archaeology duly assembled an excavation team.

Working alongside a decontamination team treating the fallout from a ruptured diesel tank, the archaeologists recovered 71 inhumations and three cremation burials. Spanning the period from the late 1st century right the way through to the dying days of Roman control, these burials reflect the lifespan of Corinium Dobunnorum — Roman Cirencester. As well as an indication of the large number of people that must have originally been laid to rest in this plot, the human remains provide our clearest glimpse of Corinium‘s inhabitants for 40 years. The Tetbury Road cemetery also yielded some exceptional grave goods, and even shed new light on an enduring mystery about Cirencester’s Roman street system.

Dogleg detour

In the late 3rd century AD, many visitors entering Corinium through the Bath Gate must have pondered a curious kink in the approach road. The thoroughfare in question was the Fosse Way, a major highway thrown up in the early years of the Roman occupation to link the legionary fortresses at Exeter and Lincoln, as well as various military bases strung out between them. As time passed, the army moved on. While its soldiers became bogged down in Wales and northern England, the site of many of its former bases along the Fosse Way, including Cirencester, became prosperous civilian settlements.

The excavation plan of the Bridges Garage site, showing the location of the inhumation and cremation burials. Lying adjacent to Tetbury Road, a number of features appear to respect the orientation of a Roman predecessor to the modern thoroughfare. The earliest features are  the enclosure ditches, seemingly associated with cremation burials. Later a square stone enclosure or mausoleum was constructed, although only the robber trenches from its east corner survive. Large parts of the plot were lost when the garage was constructed in the 1960s.

The Fosse Way is, even by the fastidious standards of Roman roads, notoriously straight. But around 500m from Cirencester’s town walls the road suddenly veers sharply to the right, shunning the shortest route into the Roman town and instead crossing the defences some 400m to the south. This dogleg detour took bemused travellers directly north of the amphitheatre before shepherding them straight through the town dump. A tipping ground since c.AD 200, the accumulated filth is likely to have made a powerful first impression on visitors. By the closing years of the 3rd century, however, the dump was receiving rather more solemn deposits. It became a major Late Roman burial ground.

Roman Cirencester, showing the course of its walls and how the Fosse Way veers to the south-east as it enters the town. Modern Tetbury Road continues the course that the Fosse Way would have taken if it had approached the town directly. Was the Tetbury Road Roman cemetery originally laid out along just such a route?

Investigated in the 1970s by Alan McWhirr, the Bath Gate cemetery excavation was among the first to apply modern standards to the study of skeletons. The subsequent report is still revered as a classic.

Despite the difficulty of detecting graves cut into and then backfilled with the uniform brown hue of decayed Roman rubbish, the archaeologists successfully unearthed around 450 inhumation burials. There was nothing fancy about the cemetery. Very few individuals were accompanied with grave goods, and the overall impression is of a burial ground for the ordinary inhabitants of Late Roman Corinium. Despite only being separated from the Bath Gate burial ground by a dry valley, the Tetbury Road cemetery is rather different. Knowledge of burials here stretches back further than Richard Reece’s rescue excavations, into the 1800s. In 1867, workers found Roman skeletons and stone coffins while they were building a cattle market. Two years later, a small square enclosure, possibly a mausoleum, was also discovered. The presence of both cremation and inhumation burials was a strong indication that the Tetbury Road cemetery was a place of burial for far longer than its Late Roman neighbour at the Bath Gate.

A change in burial fashion swept over much of Roman Britain around the mid 2nd century. Aping contemporary trends in Rome, inhumation eclipsed cremation as the favoured means of committing the departed to the earth. Although the situation is less clear-cut in the more conservative military north, elsewhere cremation often signals burial during the first century of Roman occupation. Intriguingly, modern Tetbury Road follows the line that the Fosse Way would have taken if it had entered the Roman town via the shortest route, rather than undergoing the awkward dogleg down to the Bath Gate. Could it be that the Fosse Way had originally entered the Roman town along the Tetbury Road alignment, and that these burials are vestiges of a cemetery that had been laid out beside it just beyond the urban limits?

On the face of it this would hardly be surprising. There is nothing in the terrain forcing the road to deviate from a straight course, so the only reason for a detour is to allow the crossroads between the Fosse Way and equally important Ermin Street to occur at the northwest corner of the town forum. The desire for a symbolic meeting of these highways at Corinium‘s administrative heart would not have been a consideration when the Fosse Way was originally laid out, as it pre-dates the town and instead served the local military base.
If the dogleg to the forum is a later civil conceit, then what is the obstacle to concluding that the road did originally run straight here, and that its former course survived as a spur serving the nascent town? One problem is that the projected original line of the Fosse Way stubbornly refuses to align with what is known of Corinium‘s street grid. There are ample clues from the Bridges Garage excavations, though, that a Roman thoroughfare contemporary with the town does lie sealed beneath Tetbury Road.

Within the stone enclosure the only surviving burial with grave goods was this child laid to rest with a stone flagon (BELOW). A product of the north Wiltshire kilns, near modern Swindon, the flagon can be dated to the first half of the 2nd century. This provides the strongest evidence for the date of the enclosure, and suggests a precociously early date for the inhumations.

Highway child

A group of ditched enclosures were the earliest features on the Bridges Garage site. Whether these originally formed part of a formal cemetery or represent field systems established around the new town is impossible to say with certainty. Three cremation burials were found at the back of one of these enclosures, and were carefully positioned to respect its southern edge. This, together with the site’s proximity to Corinium, lying just over 100m from the line of the later town defences, suggests that the area probably was set aside as funerary space from the beginning.

9126-FLAGONThe three cremation burials were all placed in urns, with a fourth probable burial (but truncated to such a degree that no bones survived) interred in a vessel made of lead. Dating to the late 1st or early 2nd century, the urns were filled with the charred remains of some of Corinium‘s earliest inhabitants. It is possible that the bodies were incinerated nearby, as traces of funeral pyres have been found at a site lying slightly further west along Tetbury Road. The small surviving pocket of cremation burials at Bridges Garage may be an outlier from the original main focus there, as most of the cremation burials salvaged by Richard Reece were probably plucked from the other side of the enclosure — that is, the side closest to Tetbury Road. Tellingly, perhaps, the enclosure runs parallel to the modern road, which would fit with the ditches being laid out with reference to a Roman predecessor. If so, the majority of cremation burials would be strung out along the roadside.

This area of the cemetery became more elaborate in the early 2nd century. The robbed-out corner of a stone structure testifies to the construction of a funerary enclosure or possibly even a mausoleum similar to those found at Colchester or Southwark. Whatever its precise form, such a monument might also be expected to occupy a highly visible roadside location where it would make a suitably powerful impact on the living. A group of inhumation burials lay within this stone edifice. Only one of them was accompanied by any grave goods: a child buried with a flagon. This had been fired in kilns close to modern-day Swindon, one of the major production areas for pottery used in Corinium. Belonging to the first half of the 2nd century, this flagon gives the best indication of the date of these burials. The implication is that those responsible for these inhumations were well ahead of the curve when it came to adopting the newly fashionable burial rites.

While the stone structure must suggest a degree of wealth, the single surviving grave good from within its walls — the flagon — is hardly symbolic of earthly riches. There is, though, one feature that distinguishes burials inside the enclosure from those lying beyond its walls: the grave fills contain far more fragments of broken pottery. Rather than random refuse, the type of pots represented is highly suggestive. Dating to the first half of the 2nd century, the sherds overwhelmingly belong to amphora, flagons and ‘tazze‘, a distinctive type of vessel with a frilled top and centre. These latter served as incense-burners. It is not a great reach to suggest that the other pots are present because of their role in the storage and pouring of wine.

The broken pots are unlikely to be the detritus of raucous booze-fuelled wakes screened off from prying eyes by the enclosure. Classical authors record that it was usual for relatives and well-wishers to return to the deceased’s graveside on the anniversary of their burial. As fragments of drinking beakers are conspicuously absent, it appears that the mourners did not come to partake of drink themselves, making libations a plausible explanation. Once poured, the pots were smashed.

Herald of the god

The Cologne cockerel presumably reached the site after being traded down the Rhine. The figurine’s enamel retains its vibrancy, showing how striking this type of figurine’s stylised plumage would originally have been (see CA 222).

A richer burial lay directly outside the stone monument. Here a small child, two or three years old, was laid to rest with two grave goods: a small pottery feeding cup with a little spout to drink from, and a bronze cockerel figurine with its vibrant plumage picked out in coloured enamel. This exceptional object is one of only eight known from the Roman world. Rather than being cast as a single, solid object, these cockerels had hollow bodies that the wing piece slotted over. This space was previously believed to have a functional role, perhaps serving as a novelty lamp’s oil reservoir. At Bridges Garage, though, for the first time a third section, the tail, survived intact. This was soldered in place, rendering the hollow body cavity inaccessible and revealing that this feature was purely a manufacturing convenience. The cockerel was no more — and no less — than a beautiful and striking figurine.

Such enamelled goods appear to be peculiar to workshops in northern England. Casts for enamel vessels have been found at Castleford, while Carlisle has recently been proposed as another manufacturing centre. Although the bottom part of the Bridges Garage cockerel is missing, as the figurine is snapped off at the feet, a religious dimension to these figurines is suggested by an example found at Buchten in the Netherlands. Here the pedestal supporting the cockerel carried an inscription revealing that the object was dedicated to an obscure goddess — Arcanua — by Ulpius Verinus, a veteran of the 6th Legion. Cockerels are, however, more commonly associated with another God: Mercury.

The bronze and enamel cockerel figurine, showing how the tail piece was soldered onto the back.

Mercury was a particularly popular deity in the Cotswolds: a temple complex dedicated to him lies nearby at Uley. The affinity between this god and cockerels is believed to stem from their similar roles as messenger of the gods and herald of dawn. The figurine’s presence in the child’s grave may owe more to Mercury’s additional duty of guiding the souls of the deceased to the afterlife. It is all too easy to imagine grief-stricken parents committing this valuable object to their child’s grave in the hope that it would carry favour with the god. Most likely dating to the first half of the 2nd century, it may not be the first bronze cockerel to have been found at Cirencester. According to a 1922 guidebook, a similar figurine was found in Cricklade Street in 1870, but regrettably that artefact is now lost.

Outside a city wall

Many of the remaining inhumations are difficult to date, but the others with grave goods are Late Roman. Despite only 71 inhumations being found at Bridges Garage, against the 450 or so from the Bath Gate cemetery, the Tetbury Road burial ground has produced far more Late Roman grave goods. This is in direct contrast to their apparent relative importance as access points to the Roman town, but signals that Tetbury Road was the burial ground of choice for some of society’s wealthier members. Once again the most interesting burial — in terms of accompanying artefacts — was that of a child. A mass of jet beads in the neck area indicate a necklace, while further jet bracelets and bangles were found near the wrists. Two more bronze bracelets were positioned beneath the child’s feet. All of these date to the late 3rd or 4th century.

This close-up of the neck area of a Late Roman child shows the mass of beads from a necklace, and also a jet bangle.

Slightly more exotic objects include a string of glass and bone beads held fast on a delicate copper-alloy wire chain and a rare sheet-metal bracelet with cross-hatched and cable designs. The most famous parallel for this last item comes from the Lankhills cemetery at Winchester (see CA 266); these late 4th-century ornaments were once thought to be a Continental type, manufactured in the Danubian lands. Another Late Roman artefact is a cabled ivory bracelet. Believed to be elephant rather than walrus ivory, the raw material was probably only worked into its final state after it had been imported, as this bracelet form was also available in jet and shale, and appears to have been a Romano- British speciality. With the exception of hobnails from shoes that were often worn by the deceased when they were buried, none of the certainly male skeletons was accompanied with grave goods.

This Late Roman female was buried with a mass of bracelets and bangles in the vicinity of  her wrist. The group was carefully defined on site, before being lifted so that they could be excavated under lab conditions. The objects included bone bracelets with metal clasps and a string of glass beads.

While many of the bones were poorly preserved, it is possible to say that among the inhumations there were 30 females, 21 males, and 20 unidentified. The males had an average height of 170cm, while the females stood around 158cm tall. The only striking difference in bone wear is to the shoulders, where the males ran far greater risk of joint disease than the females. This indicates that there were differences in the tasks they performed. While it is tempting to see the damage to the shoulders as a result of the hard manual labour associated with agricultural work, studies suggest that farmers use their bodies in the correct anatomical way. Far greater stress comes from crafts such as stone-working, perhaps suggesting that those buried here were more specialised craftsmen.

An exception to this picture of a cemetery populated with fairly standard Romano-British individuals is a person who appears to be suffering from psoriatic arthritis. Although the majority of the body was lost when the garage fuel tanks were built, it is clear that the bones in both feet were fused together into a mass of bone. This inflammatory disease remains poorly understood, and it is rarely reported in ancient skeletons from Britain. Judging by the state of the bones the arthritis was in an advanced state, and while the individual could probably still walk, their feet would have been swollen and painful.

A rare example of psoriatic arthritis in an ancient population in Britain. The photograph of one foot and the X-ray of the right and left feet show how the multitude  of foot bones have fused to form a bony mass. This would have left the feet swollen and painful.

Ghost town

The latest feature on the site was a possible sunken-featured building that cut one of the Roman grave shafts. This building contained 30 or so sherds of grass-tempered ware, a form of pottery that is known from three other sites around Corinium and appears to date from the 5th to 8th centuries AD. The occurrence of Anglo-Saxon archetypes, such as sunken-featured buildings, is traditionally tied to an entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that records a battle at Dyrham in AD 577 when the Saxon king conquered the kings of Cirencester, Bath, and Gloucester. According to this reading, the Saxons — and this pottery — arrived in the aftermath of the battle.

One set of the grass-tempered pottery, from Barton Farm, was found in an Anglo-Saxon burial that contained early to mid 5th-century grave goods, and was cut through a mosaic. As well as pre-dating the battle, suggesting the Saxons arrived rather earlier, all the other instances of the pottery also fall immediately outside the Roman town. This begs the question, was there still an intact Romano-British population sheltering within its walls, or were people simply congregating around the shattered shell of the former town?

To return to the question of why the Tetbury Road cemetery lies where it does, could it have lined an early course of Fosse Way? While the mismatch between the putative route of the road and the town street-grid remains a problem, in all other respects the cemetery would be a perfect fit for one laid out along a highway. If so, this raises the further question of what was going on along the other side of the road. This is a tantalising question: the Bridges Garage site lies opposite parkland. Within it there is an enigmatic artificial mound known as Grismond’s Tower. Antiquarian records mention that traces of burning were found at its base. While this could be a Bronze Age barrow, impressive examples of such funerary earthworks were also erected in the Early Roman period. It is an intriguing possibility.

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