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This blog is a behind the scenes look at the Roman Baths in Bath. We hope you enjoy reading our stories about life surrounding the Roman Baths.

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

Festival of Archaeology: Roman Death and Burial

As part of the Festival of Archaeology the Roman Baths Collections team were in Sydney Gardens exploring the theme of Roman death and burial.

Burials are a major source of information that helps us to understand life in Roman Britain. Burials provide evidence about physique, disease, social organisations and religious beliefs and rituals.

Emily preparing the Death and Burial display at Sydney Gardens

So how can we tell a burial is Roman?

In Roman Britain you were typically buried in one of two ways, either cremation or inhumation. A cremation burial is the burial of cremated remains in an urn or pot and inhumation is the burial of body in a grave or tomb.  

Cremation with grave goods became more widespread following the Roman invasion in 43 AD, but later gave way to inhumation with fewer grave goods, possibly as other religions, such as Christianity and Mithraism grew in popularity.

Roman coarseware jar containing cremated remains, on display at the Roman Baths museum

What is a grave good? 

An object buried with the body, mostly of inorganic material such as pottery, jewellery, weapons and toys. Organic items would have been deposited with the body, but have since decayed. Grave goods can help us date a burial as well as provide insight into the life of the individual. Grave goods often reflected the wealth or status of the individual, or their family.

They were also ritual objects, with pottery at a burial site often being a sign of ritual feasting. Feasts were held as the deceased was buried, or sometimes days after. Food was also left as an offering for the deceased. These practices explain why we find food and beverage vessels at different levels at a burial site. 

Selection of grave goods: Clockwise from top left to right; flagon rim, samian sherd, jar base, rim sherd, iron brooch, commemorative bronze coin of Septimus Severus with funerary pyre depicted on the reverse, selection of hobnails

What would they be buried in?

The first materials to decompose are organic such as wood, food, and clothing. This leaves us without much knowledge of what clothing a person was buried in. Items such as pins, brooches and hobnails are the only remaining clues for a person’s clothing. Pins and brooches were used to hold together a shroud or toga.

Hobnails are common remaining fragments of a Roman shoe. This tells us the individual could have been clothed when they were buried or that the shoes were placed as a symbolic grave good in or outside the coffin. The nails would have been screwed into the sole of the shoe, similar to a modern football boot.
Female skeleton excavated at Batheaston with hobnails found in situ at the soles of the feet

What do you think would survive in a burial today that could tell us about life in 2019?

Imogen Westcott

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