Review – Romans laid to rest

4 mins read
The remains could be buried in a variety of vessels, such as this ceramic facepot, made in the St Albans/London area and excavated in Fetter Lane. (IMAGE: Museum of London)
Excavations in the north and south continue to reveal  evidence of how Romans buried their dead. Lucia Marchini explores two exhibitions in London and York approaching  the subject in different ways.

With an empire stretching from north Africa to northern Britain and lasting several centuries, the Romans had a rich array of customs. Such diversity can be seen in how they treated their dead, laying them to rest in stone sarcophagi, wooden coffins, lead caskets, or glass cremation urns. Roman London had all of these, and the Museum of London Docklands has brought together examples from across the capital for their latest exhibition, Roman Dead.

The centrepiece, with a quick turnaround from discovery to display in this special exhibition, is the sarcophagus excavated in Southwark last summer (see CA 341 for the latest research). It is a rare find, only the third of its kind to be unearthed in London, and showcases the wealth of the woman buried within. Another exceptional find, in contrast, highlights economy in burials. A wooden coffin on show is one of the best preserved from London, and the impressions left by the ribs, spine, and knees of the deceased can still be seen on the oak. It was made, probably quickly and cheaply, from repurposed planks, and the resulting coffin was slightly too small for its intended occupant; his feet had to be squashed in.

Or they could be found in this glass urn, such as this one found in Southwark with its lid and a large quantity of cremated bone. (IMAGE: Museum of London)

Where appropriate, human remains are displayed side by side with their coffins or cremation urns and associated grave goods, encouraging visitors to consider each burial as a whole, while passages from ancient literature – such as Lucian’s De Luctu (On Funerals) – on the walls provide extra details about mourning and help set the artefacts in context. The cremation vessels vary a great deal, as does the amount of remains they contain. Some of the smallest held just 20 per cent of a person, while others held more than 75 per cent. As for the urns, ceramic vessels were the most common; some have limescale on the inside showing they were previously used for cooking, and some – like facepots – are decorated. Rare glass containers are also on show.

Food (including lentils imported from the Mediterranean or Near East) was burnt along with bodies, as were personal objects. One cremation urn found at West Tenter Street, Tower Hamlets, contained a charred iron finger-ring with a carnelian or onyx intaglio depicting a satyr, cracked in the heat of the pyre. The ring is dated to AD 50-120 and is older than the vessel that held it, hinting that it was a prized possession of the deceased 26- to 35-year-old.

Roman London was a place with international connections, reflected through objects and people from across the Empire. Recent research on the human remains is included on the labels and gives further insights into the capital’s ancient inhabitants. Isotopic analysis of a woman of black African ancestry, buried in Lant Street in the 4th century, suggests that she grew up in the southern Mediterranean.

While this woman was interred with local pottery from south-east England, others have showier works of spectacular craftsmanship, such as a gold ring with an intaglio depicting the town mouse and country mouse of the Roman poet Horace’s Satires (2.6), a necklace of jet (a material with magical properties that could protect the dead) featuring a pendant carved like Medusa, and a pricey and rare mosaic glass dish, probably from the eastern Mediterranean, that would have cost more than a soldier’s annual pay.

The inhumation burial of a woman who grew up in the London area (as indicated by isotopic analysis) contained a range of grave goods: two jet pendants, a long bead necklace, a copper-alloy bracelet, a flagon, a miniature jar, and a pewter bowl. Chicken bones were also found. (IMAGE: Museum of London)

Craftsmanship is a key theme in another exhibition taking place at the far end of Ermine Street. DIG is offering an altogether different take on Roman grave goods among the interactive and educational displays in the 12th-century St Saviourgate church in York. The permanent exhibits here explore both the methods used at, and the finds from, the 2010 investigation of Hungate, including a lavish Roman grave with jet beads and bracelets, and another with glass necklace beads and a small glass unguent bottle.

Excavations at a multi-phase Roman cemetery near Tadcaster Road last year uncovered the remains of 76 individuals and grave goods like dishes, jars, beakers, and flagons that may have been produced locally. Now a temporary display (Your DIG: Tang Hall, extended until September) presents the results of a community initiative that draws on the finds and delves into the life-cycle of these ceramics. It is clear where they ended up, but where did they come from? Archaeologists have found a number of kiln sites in Yorkshire, including at Apple Tree Farm, a few kilometres east of York city centre and near the Tang Hall estate, the focus of this project. There were at least two early 2nd-century kilns at Apple Tree Farm, a spot probably selected for easy access to the clay, sand, and wood nearby. The site produced a range of pottery, possibly including some of the vessels from Tadcaster Road.

Following in Roman footsteps, with the help of experimental archaeologist and potter Graham Taylor (of Potted History), participants in the Tang Hall Big Local Archaeological Project made Roman-style ceramics like those from the Apple Tree Farm kiln using ancient methods and even a replica Roman kiln, allowing the potters an experience of the sights and smells of the Roman firing process. Wood-burning scents are even recreated in the room, where there is a model of a kiln, complete with miniature pots.

Displayed in a case next to one featuring ancient ceramics from the Apple Tree Farm kilns and the burials near Tadcaster Road, the modern facepots showcase flair and distinct designs. One blind participant has carved a naturalistic bearded self-portrait. Others have added an array of adornments, from horns to handles. The juxtaposition of common archaeological finds, like tile and mortarium fragments, and contemporary creativity serves both as a way of engaging with the ancient past of a local area and as a reminder of the lives of those behind objects often associated with the Roman dead.

Roman-inspired facepots by Tang Hall’s local residents are shown alongside ceramics from burials in York. (IMAGE: York Archaeological Trust)

Roman Dead runs at the Museum of London Docklands until 28 October. Admission is free. Visit for more details. Your DIG: Tang Hall runs at DIG, York, until 16 September. Entry to the exhibition is free. See for more information.

This review appeared in CA 342.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.