“And because humus ’soil’ is terra ‘earth’, therefore a dead man who is covered with terra is humatus ’inhumed’. For when a Roman is cremated and then buried and clods of earth are not thrown over the grave, or if a bone of a dead man has been kept to purify the family, the household remains in mourning. In the latter case the bone is purified by covering of the earth.”
In this quote from Varro’s On Latin Language 5.23 from the 1st century BCE, we see a reference to the practice of os resectum. He notes that the basic requirements of pure burial are covering the body with earth, and that mourning will continue as long as a portion of the body remains uncovered. A finger was often severed from the deceased prior to cremation. In this quote, the severed finger is kept to purify the family as long as mourning is taking place. Cicero concurs with this observation that the os resectum was kept during the mourning period, but needed to be buried after. However, the true meaning of this practice and the frequency of its practice is still debatable.
One argument is that os resectum is symbolic of burial of the individual when the rest of the body was cremated. From the writings of Festus, it was remarked that the os resectum was required for conducting the funerary rites when the deceased was being cremated. The finger was metaphorical for the individual. Lindsay (2000) suggests that this practice was done to symbolize burial, and was similar to the practice of spreading dirt across the cremated remains. The Roman College of Priest, the pontiffs, demanded that when cremation took place there must be some form of inhumation. However, the law of the Twelve tables states that “no bones shall be taken from the body of a person who is dead, or from his ashes after cremation, in order that funeral ceremonies may again be held elsewhere. When, however, anyone dies in a foreign country, or is killed in war, a part of his remains may be transferred to the burial place of his ancestors”. There is an interesting contradiction here if indeed cremation required inhumation, since that would also require removal of bones from the deceased. Although Varro also notes that when individuals were cremated abroad, the os resectum would be brought back to Italy to be buried. The severed digit being symbolic of the entire individual being returned.
There is little archaeological evidence of the practice of os resectum. At Via Appia in 1732, antiquarians recovered 300 coarse-ware vessels containing the remains of a single finger, as well as the name of the individual, both male and female, and the date of their death. The only problem is that the bones found at this site were recorded as being cremated or burned. While the practice may be similar, if the symbolic purpose was to allow inhumation then these wouldn’t satisfy. If the finger is meant to symbolize the individual only, then this would represent the rite. Graham (2009) noted that the practice was found in archaeological records at the columbarium of Pomponius Hylas at Rome, at Ostia, and Herculaneum. She argues that the ritual was popular from the mid-republic to the early imperial period, becoming less important during the 1st century CE. While the practice has been noted, it isn’t widespread- although this could be due to sampling error or lack of attention paid to cremated remains.
Given the archaeological evidence, the ritual does not seem to represent either a necessary token inhumation as required by the pontiffs and twelve tables, nor is it solely a representation of soldiers and individuals who died in a foreign land. First, the practice is not found everywhere in the archaeological evidence and the presence of burned os resectum suggests that it was not metaphoric of inhumation. Nor was it only done by certain classes, since examples are found at both elite and impoverished cemeteries. Second, the practice was not just done for those individuals who were soldiers abroad since a high number of female names were found on the pottery containing the os resectum. Rather, the interpretations by Varro and Festus about purification and mourning may be correct. The finger may be a token of the individual which the family keeps during the mourning period. The act of removing bones from a grave for commemoration or memorial is fairly common throughout Europe (See my posts on removal of bones from graves). Looking further into other mortuary and funerary practices may aid in interpreting this practice. For example, the rise of fall of the practice correlates with the rise and fall of the practice of cremation, suggesting that it was only directly related to this burial practice. By comparing the rite against other trends, such as the pontiff control over burial, the changes in social structure, or overall patterns in funerary rituals better interpretations can be constructed.
Graham 2009. Becoming persons, becoming ancestors. Personhood, memory and the corpse in Roman rituals of social remembrance. Archaeological Dialogues 16 : pp 51-74.
Lindsay 2000. Death-pollution and funerals in the city of Rome, in V.M. Hope and E. Marshall (eds), Death and disease in the ancient city, London: 152–73
Hope 2007. Death in ancient Rome: a source book. NY: Routledge.