Sometimes, when we discover burials through archaeological excavation we don’t find markers or above ground indicators that the burial was located there. The cemetery is found because of construction, agriculture, aerial survey, surveying or other methods. For example, a historic cemetery in the US may have been marked with wooden grave markers or crosses but today would have no clear evidence of markers or the grave at all. Many individuals couldn’t even afford to have stone in the colonial period in the US because it would need to be imported. If one of these graves marked with wood was located in an arid desert the marker may survive over a number of centuries. However, if located in a wetter region with variable temperatures, it could rot and become lost over time. A cemetery in Idaho was surveyed using ground penetrating radar and it was discovered that hundreds of grave markers were destroyed due to a brush fire that occurred in the 1930’s. These markers could have been highly elaborate structures or just simple crosses, sadly most of the information that can have been gained is lost in time due to decay, natural causes, and human intervention. What we can find though is evidence of post holes or organic materials that may have been used as a marker.
Recently in England, a cemetery near Colchester’s Roman circus was excavated an revealed an interesting burial pattern. The site of Colchester has a deep history. Prior to Roman invasion in 43 CE, this area was a center of activity and as close to a ‘capitol’ as was possible in this period. When the Romans arrived they took over and built their city above the remains of the Iron Age one. Burial was important and highly structured for the Romans. Burial was not allowed within the walls of the city, so cemeteries tend to be located on the edges of settlements along major roadways. The graves themselves were meant to be visible so that they could garner the attention and prayers of people who were going in or out of the city. Many of their stone monuments remain to this day throughout Britain and Western Europe.
The excavation was conducted by the Colchester Archaeological Trust, and revealed that some of the citizens of this area marked their graves with ditches and wooden fences. Like historic cemeteries in the US, it was thought that the burials of the less wealthy would have been marked with wood, but due to preservation it wouldn’t be recovered. After a four month excavation, this speculation has been proven. Inhumations dating from the 2nd to 3rd centuries CE were found surrounded by small postholes indicating that once wooden structures of some point would have been found around them. The fenced in burials were found in two clusters that were about 80 meters apart, with both unfenced inhumation and cremation burials between. Due to the high acidity of the soil, which causes increased decay, especially organic ones, there were few skeletons recovered. However, they did find some grave goods within the burials. These include pots, mirrors, iron studs potentially from shoes which would have decayed, and an unusual jet medallion of Medusa. Archaeologist on the project Philip Crummy characterized this behavior as unusual and unique, and he hypothesized that “it seems we are dealing not with one great cemetery area but a collection little plots used by different groups or families”.
Other grave types include simple inhumations, inhumations with ditches next to them, and cremation burials. Due to the lack of skeletal remains, it is difficult to determine whether these different patterns were actually related family members, whether they were specifically meant for a single sex or age, or if certain types of burial were meant to section off individuals with a particular disease, as is sometimes seen with individuals with leprosy. One pattern though is clear in the presence of graves that were shallow and small. Given the size of the grave, it is thought that these belonged primarily to sub-adults. The graves were too small and narrow to possibly hold the remains of adults, and some were accompanied by small pots thought to be diagnostic of children.
In total, the site has over 400 graves, and was completely undisturbed. Therefore, it can reveal a large amount of information about funerary patterns that other sites cannot, and will help us learn more about Roman Britain. Already we have learned that some of these supposed ‘unmarked’ graves actually did once have markers. It is possible all of these had markers at some point. It will be interesting to learn more about this excavation as the results become published.
Hilts, 2013. Remarkable ringfenced burials from Roman Colchester. Current Archaeology. http://www.archaeology.co.uk/articles/news/remarkable-ringfenced-burials-from-roman-colchester.htm?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=remarkable-ringfenced-burials-from-roman-colchester
CA, 2007. AD 43 – Colchester, Roman Camulodunum. Current Archaeology. http://www.archaeology.co.uk/specials/the-timeline-of-britain/ad-43-colchester-roman-camulodunum.htm