Roman Burials at Canterbury

In the famous location of Canterbury, noted for its tales by Chaucer, a roman cemetery has been unearthed. Archaeologists have dated the site to around 290 CE. The excavation has revealed the remains of at least 150 individuals of all ages and both sexes. The project is looking at each skeleton in order to determine biological traits such as sex, age, height, and potentially reason for death. Given their west to east orientation, it is argued that they were Christian burials. Other archaeological finds include a number of Anglo-Saxon loom weights and the remains of some of the buildings from the period (Hedges 2011).


Rahtz (1977) looked at the patterns of late Roman burials throughout the UK, and could give us more insight into the burials at Canterbury. He notes that these types of cemeteries are distinguishable by their “predominantly west-east orientation and by an absence or paucity of grave goods, and yet not in obviously Christian contexts”. These types of mortuary patterns occur following a Roman period of cremation being the predominant burial practice, which also required burial outside of the domestic settlement (Anderson 2007). Given that these do not reflect the Roman practices, there is a question to what extent these burials are a transition due to religion or a continuation of pre-Roman pagan acts (Rahtz 1977).

The change in mortuary practices is due to different beliefs in the afterlife and how the treatment of the body effects this. Romans saw cremation as both an ideal solution to saving space and quickly dealing with the body, but also because the body itself served no purpose after death. Christians however follow the words of Paul’s first epistle in Corinthians which states that ‘the dead shall be raised incorruptible’, taken to mean that the body should be preserved. Allowing the skeleton to face towards the east is a way of letting the body see the rising sun and face the appropriate direction during the resurrection. No artifacts are found with the body because non of these can be taken or used in the next life. These features do not necessarily mean that a site is Christian, orientation may be coincidental or aligned to another feature such as a road, lack of artifacts may be due to poverty, and non-cremation may have been a personal choice of that community, however all of these features together are a strong indicator (Thomas 1981).

Rahtz (1977) argues that there are four types of late Roman burial patterns. These include sub-Roman secular cemeteries which are directly associated with a Roman settlement and its artifacts, or are part of a more classic Roman cremation cemetery. They are west-east oriented graves with little to no artifacts. The second type is sub-Roman religious, which is similar to the first, except that it is associated with a religious building or structure. Artifacts from these sites will include specifically religious ones, and may even include Christian artifacts such as crosses. Type three includes those associated with hill-top settlements and are a continuation of pre-Roman Iron Age practices. The final type is Early Christian, which differs from the others because it is in direct association with a monastic structure.

Given the little evidence that we have regarding the Canterbury cemetery, it would seem that evidence agrees with the conclusion that this represents a Christian cemetery, although its context within the domestic settlement may suggest it fits with Rahtz’s (1977) sub-Roman secular, rather than religious, site. As more information becomes available we will be able to compare this site against other Roman and Early Christian sites in the UK to determine more about the site. This transitional period in the UK, between Roman and Saxon, has been understudied so this dig provides a valuable source of information. What will be interesting to see is how this site compares against Roman and Saxon. When cultures are in flux, there tends to be major change in mortuary patterns as groups try to assert their identity and solidify themselves.

Perhaps this excavation is looking for a spunky young mortuary archaeologist to do a comparison of the material? Why I’d love to!

Works Cited

Hedges. 2011. Archaeologists unearth 150 Roman graves in Cantebury.

Anderson. 2007. Roman burial practices. Spoilheap.

Rahtz. 1977. Late Roman cemeteries and beyond. Burial in the Roman World. CBA.

Thomas. 1981. Christianity in Roman Britain.

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