Roman Colchester: burning insights

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The bustum, with seeds marked with white squares. Photo: Colchester Archaeological TrustFollowing the discovery of unusual ringfenced burials from Roman Colchester, further evidence of Camulodunum‘s diverse funerary practices comes with the discovery of a rare bustum or pyre burial, found during a Colchester Archaeological Trust excavation on the site of the city’s Roman garrison. Closer examination of the cremation yielded something more elusive still: traces of food offerings placed on the fire 1,800 years ago.

Typically, Roman cremations took place outside cemeteries. The bones were then reduced to small pieces, picked out of the ashes, and brought to the burial ground for interment. A bustum, however, saw the remains burned over a shallow pit in the cemetery, which then doubled as a grave, with bone and pyre debris buried on the spot.

Round depressions in the corners of the newly-discovered 2m-long pit suggest that vertical posts may have been used to give the pyre height and to contain the material over the pit.

One of the possible dates. Photo: Colchester Archaeological Trust‘We have only seen a few burials like this in Colchester over the years,’ said CAT lead archaeologist Philip Crummy. ‘The pit has red edges showing where it was heated by the fire, and it is full of charcoal with burnt bone mixed in throughout. While the material is quite jumbled, you can see pieces from the skull at one end, with leg bones at the other and pieces from the ribs and spine in between — this shows how the body was burnt in situ, with fragments trickling through the embers into the pit below.’

He added: ‘This is a rare kind of burial, but what makes it exceptional is the fact that we also found what seem to be dates and seeds mixed up with the ash. Organic remains like these rarely survive in graves, but charring can preserve them. They were probably placed on the embers as the flames died down – otherwise they would have been incinerated. Organic deposits such as this may well have been common, maybe even typical, in graves but the peculiar nature of the bustum-burial makes it possible for them to survive and be found. ‘

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