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Death and Burial Rites on Hadrian’s Wall

Posted:
27 April 2018
Posted By:
Frances McIntosh
Categories:
History Uncovered
Photograph showing cross-section of burial urns with creamtion remains inside

The remains of a Roman burial site at Birdoswald were the first of their kind along Hadrian’s Wall to be excavated using modern scientific techniques. As part of the newly opened exhibition at Birdoswald, experts from English Heritage and Historic England have analysed the finds for the first time – and what they found was totally unexpected. 

The discovery

In 1959, while ploughing west of Birdoswald, a farmer discovered two complete pots and several black patches in the ground. He had stumbled across a Roman cremation cemetery. For ethical reasons human remains are not usually disturbed unnecessarily, so from 1960 onwards the field was left unploughed, and the cemetery remained safe under the grass.

However in 2009, erosion of the escarpment on which the cemetery rested was becoming a problem, with land crumbling over the edge into the river Irthing. English Heritage therefore decided to excavate a section of the cemetery before it was lost. The urns they uncovered have now been studied extensively by experts and we can reveal the findings for the first time. The variety of burials intrigued the experts – the remains were of women and children, as well as of men – and most surprisingly, one woman’s ashes were mixed with fragments of armour.

Aerial photograph of Birdoswald Roman Fort on Hadrian's Wall

An aerial view of Birdoswald Roman Fort. The burial site was discovered in the area in the top left of the image, just above the tree line

A rare insight

The excavation was an exciting opportunity for English Heritage. Evidence for burial practice along Hadrian’s Wall is scarce, and up until now the only knowledge we had came from antiquarian finds of burials and tombstones, some of which had been re-used in buildings.

The excavation at Birdoswald offered the chance to investigate burials in a modern archaeological excavation using the most-up to date recording methods and research. It also provided a wonderful opportunity for students from Newcastle University to learn excavation skills on an important site alongside the English Heritage professional team.

The dig revealed that a road led from the settlement on the west side of the fort into the cemetery. All the burials excavated were within a ditched enclosure, showing that the burial site was marked out during the Roman period. A wide range of burials, or deposits, were discovered. There were simple, unlined pits containing charcoal and burnt bone, stone-lined graves and burnt bone placed in pots.

The variety is remarkable. Tony Wilmott, Senior Archaeologist and co-director of the excavation says the different burials probably reflect the range of beliefs at Birdoswald at this time. The people living along Hadrian’s Wall came from all over the Empire, and their practices reflected this diversity. Among the wide range of ideas about the afterlife, one was that the underworld was the resting place for the dead, with those not accepted by the underworld gods wandering homeless forever. Another was that souls lived on in their graves or tombs. For this reason, it was important to make offerings regularly, as they could influence the fortunes of the living. A funeral ritual also accompanied the burial, often with feasting.

Two archaeologists kneeling down and wrapping an object following excavation

The archaeologists left the burial urns encased in soil in order to keep the vessels intact until they reached the lab

What the findings tell us

Twelve ceramic vessels, some complete, some partial, were sent to Historic England – the government body who care for England’s historic environment – at a specialist lab at Fort Cumberland near Portsmouth. Five vessels were chosen to be studied in detail for the new exhibition at Birdoswald. The whole Historic England team based there – including specialists in human remains, pottery, small finds and conservation – worked together to understand what the urns can tell us about the people of Birdoswald.

Within the bone deposits there was only human bone – no animal remains – meaning that any animals eaten as part of a funeral feast were not cremated or buried with the deceased. In all the burials, very little bone was found – only between a third and a tenth of the complete skeleton, which is normal for Roman cremations. Wilmott has suggested this is because the Romans placed more significance on the cremation event itself rather than the remains.

Each of the five burials, and what experts discovered about them, is listed in a table at the bottom of this page. The two burials which interested the excavators most were the remains of a young woman and a five-year-old child (listed for our purposes as Burial A and Burial B, respectively).

Photograph of a Roman burial urn that has been reconstructed from numerous fragments

This urn – from Burial B – was a challenge to reconstruct, even for the skilled conservators at Fort Cumberland

Woman and child

The woman and the child were buried very close to each other, with Burial A being in a pit which intersected that of the child, Burial B. This means that the child, aged to about five years by a tooth, was buried first. The proximity of the two burials has led to suggestions that there was some relationship between the two, however what form this took can only be speculation.

Burial A is also the only vessel which had items other than bone inside and has been the most challenging, and fascinating, piece for many of the specialists involved. Ten individual finds have been identified, but none can be removed as the items have been fused together by corrosion and geochemical processes. Experts had to use X-Rays and CT scans to identify the objects inside – a rather unusual method for a finds specialist.
From this investigation some of the items have been identified as copper alloy rings, a polished stone ring and two possible glass beads. The most interesting piece is a small section of iron ring mail, which would normally suggest the deceased was a soldier, yet the bones suggest the person was female. Women were not allowed to be soldiers in the Roman period, so this is an unexpected and intriguing discovery.

These discoveries have shone fresh light on the individuals who lived and died at Birdoswald, but there are still many unanswered questions. The on-going research will keep the experts at English Heritage and Historic England hard at work for some time to come.

X-Ray image of objects found inside Roman burial urn

The objects found in Burial A were so tightly fused together than experts had to take an X-Ray and a CT scan to analyse them

What we found

BurialIndividualDate Type of potteryType of burialBurning*
AYoung adult, 20-40 years, probably femalec. 120-190 ADA burnished jar, dark grey in colourRemains placed in urnVariety indicates inefficient firing, body placed on top of pyre
BChild, around 5 yearsc. 140-180 ADA burnished jar, dark grey in colour - called BB1Remains placed in urnWell-managed cremation
CYoung adult, 20-40 years, unknown sexc. 140-250 ADA burnished jar, dark grey in colour - called BB2Remains placed in urnLong and well-managed cremation
DAdult, unknown sexc. 120-190 ADA burnished jar/beaker, dark grey in colour - called BB1Bone placed in corner of stone cist, pot as a grave goodWell-managed cremation, body placed on top of pyre
EYoung adult, 20-40 years, possibly malec. 160-250 ADNene Valley colour coated beaker, orange in colourBone inside a wooden box, pot as a grave goodLong and well-managed cremation

* The information regarding the burning or firing of the remains was made possible by a partnership with Emily Carroll of Reading University who worked with the Historic England Team to carry out scientific analysis which studied changes in the bone brought about by heat.

Visit Birdoswald

Stand on the former frontier of the Roman Empire and visit Birdoswald’s brand new exhibition. Birdoswald is open 10am to 6pm daily. Visit our website for prices and full opening times.

Find out more about Birdoswald’s 1,800-year history

Explore the history and stories of Birdoswald, including the story of the people who travelled across the Roman Empire to start new lives at Hadrian’s Wall.

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  • About the Author

    Frances McIntosh
    Curator of Roman Collections at English Heritage

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