Burial with the Romans
Editor Simon Denison
Burial with the Romans
The Romans normally respected the dead. But not always. Alison Taylor reports on mutilation, child sacrifice, burial alive and other such practices
For most of us, Roman culture is a byword for civilisation in an otherwise 'barbarian' ancient world. When we think of the Romans, what springs to mind are their achievements in art and literature, architecture, engineering, law - and all the rest.
Yet the undeniable sophistication of the Romans has led many archaeologists to expect civilised treatment of the dead. When excavating cemeteries in Roman Britain, we go to huge lengths to explain away graves that suggest violence and mistreatment of dead bodies. We avoid any suggestion of Roman practices that would be regarded as abhorrent today.
Evidence, however, tells a different story. It points to religious and ritual killings in Roman Britain, infanticide, punishment burials and mutilation of bodies after death. Some of the evidence is very strange; and not all of it can be explained with certainty. But one thing is clear. The Romans in Britain did not always treat the dead as we would wish to be treated now.
Human sacrifice is often regarded as a defining feature of 'barbaric' societies - and it took place in Roman Britain. Miranda Aldhouse-Green, of the University of Wales, Newport, has written extensively on human sacrifice in Iron Age Europe (ba, October 1998). Speaking at a recent conference on Roman burial, held at Oxford in October, she pointed out that her own study of bog bodies in Europe has shown that the practice continued well into the Roman era.
Victims of every age, social class and sex were chosen. An exceptional proportion had a physical impairment of some kind. 'Overkill' was normal - a single individual might, for example, be garotted, bludgeoned, drowned and have his or her throat cut before being cast into the bog. In Britain this prehistoric practice, although always a rare event, was apparently unaffected by the Roman conquest.
Augustus, Rome's first emperor, found it necessary to ban the killing of adults for religious reasons across the Empire. Yet the ritual killings of prisoners of war, sent to Rome to be paraded around the streets and executed in public, carried on. And in Britain, the use of human body parts as religious offerings seems to have continued in spite of Augustus's ruling. Human bones are often found in rubbish pits or in ditches - especially around temple complexes - and, most revealingly, in ritual shafts or wells.
The defleshed skull found in 1995 at the base of a late 2nd century shaft outside a temple in St Albans is a good example (ba, February 1996). A teenage boy had been battered to death and decapitated. His skull was then skinned and displayed on a pole in the temple, before being consigned to the pit along with puppy bones and a small iron knife. This strong evidence that a head-cult survived in Roman Britain, as it did in Gaul, is supported by finds elsewhere, including a 3rd-4th century scalped skull fragment from Wroxeter and parts of two human skulls built into a temple wall at Cosgrove, Northamptonshire.
Infanticide is another aspect of Roman behaviour that some archaeologists find hard to accept. But its historical reality is well attested by documents. An imperial edict against infanticide was issued by Valentinian in 374 - making an exception for the very poor. The church fathers had been preaching against the practice, which was normally carried out by exposure.
Archaeological evidence is also highly suggestive. Simon Mays, a human bones specialist at English Heritage, has carried out thorough research into infanticide (ba, March 1995). In one study of the skeletons of 164 children of late Roman date who died at or around birth, measurement of the long bones established that a significant proportion died at around full term - the pattern expected for infanticide. In modern societies, by contrast, perinatal deaths (such as stillbirths and natural deaths in the immediate post-natal period) have a fairly flat age distribution, with no marked peak at full term.
In Britain, there are numerous Roman-period cemeteries in which men greatly outnumber women. This phenomenon is most striking in urban cemeteries for the poorer classes, pointing to an economic motive for the killing of baby girls and also to the effects of Romanisation in towns. Excavations this year at a large Roman cemetery in Southwark (ba, October) found twice as many men as women. Earlier excavations at Bath Gate cemetery in Cirencester found a ratio of men to women of more than two to one, and at Trentholme Drive in York, more than four to one.
In a few cases, evidence seems to point towards child sacrifice. At the temple at Springfield, Kent, excavated in the 1960s, foundation sacrifices of paired babies were found at all four corners of the temple. The burials took place at different times, indicating that the practice was repeated as the temple was extended. Similarly, excavations in the 1970s in the centre of Cambridge included a subterranean shrine and ritual shafts, of which no fewer than 12 contained newborn babies in baskets, several of them buried with small dogs. The shafts seem to have been left open for about 200-300 years.
The Roman Empire was a truly multicultural society, in which great individuality was tolerated. Practices of eastern origin were found as far west as Britain. Child sacrifice probably occurred far more often than we think - but few cases will ever be proven.
Most Roman burials, of course, were carried out with respect for the humanity of the deceased. Key characteristics include care for the integrity of the body - by thorough cremation or well-protected inhumation - and concern for future well-being, especially on the immediate post-mortem journey. This was expressed in the provision of food, drink, light, money for the fare and boots for walking.
A substantial minority of burials, however, show a different and darker attitude to corpses. These rough burials are often written off as 'careless', but the patterns are too consistent across Roman Britain for simple negligence to be the explanation. These disturbing burials include bodies that are dismembered, mutilated, bound, buried face down, decapitated, with signs of violence other than warfare, or with evidence for defleshing and exposure. The two most common variants are prone (face-down) and decapitated burials.
Most cemeteries, especially in rural and poor urban areas, include a few prone burials. They tend to lie on the edge of cemeteries or just outside the boundary. Few have proper grave goods or coffins, though some are - in all other respects - apparently normal burials. One prone burial, for example, from Poundbury near Dorchester in Dorset, was found in a coffin with quite wealthy grave goods, though this in itself marked him out in this apparently Christian cemetery where grave goods were rare.
Some prone burials show definite signs of violence. They may for example be weighted down with large stones, be decapitated, or have hands tied behind their backs, outflung or in a pressing-up posture, as if the person was conscious when he or she was thrown into the grave. The newly-published cemetery at Alington Avenue in Dorchester, Dorset, contained a prone male whose lower right arm and hand had been hacked off around the time of death.
In London's Eastern Cemetery, where 14 bodies (three per cent of the total) were prone, two had large blocks of stone on their lower back, and another appeared to have her arms tied behind her back. At Butt Road in Colchester, two prone men outside the cemetery boundary appear to have been bound at the wrists, and their ankles bones had been gnawed as if their corpses had been left exposed.
Why were these bodies buried face down? Careless undertakers, dealing with shrouded corpses and night-time burials, might have been responsible for some. But in impoverished cemeteries such as Bath Gate, Cirencester, where ten per cent of bodies lay prone often with other signs of disrespect, some further explanation is required. These individuals may have been outcasts, possibly gladiators - as argued in the excavation report. In the Roman cemetery at Spitalfields in London, a number of very young children lay prone. The excavators explained these as possible unbaptised children in a Christian cemetery.
One likely explanation may be the desire to prevent the ghosts of the dead walking among the living - especially where other signs of constraint are found. One congenitally deaf child at Poundbury, for example, had been laid prone with stone tiles over the coffin, seemingly to make sure there could be no escape from the grave.
Literary evidence shows that fear of ghosts was prevalent in the Roman world. Ovid, for example, in Fasti V, refers to an annual midnight ritual performed throughout the Empire, in which the head of the household spat black beans over his shoulder to expel ghosts from the house. Sorcery was illegal, but there was widespread belief in its efficacy, for good or evil - amulets were worn to counteract it. The emperor Tiberius expelled soothsayers from Rome, while Tacitus reports that black magic was used against Tiberius's adopted son and heir, Germanicus. Human remains, spells, curses and other 'implements of witchcraft' were found in his house after his death.
With some face-down burials, we may even be seeing burial alive. This appalling punishment, found throughout history in many parts of the world, is attested at Rome. It was the punishment stipulated for Vestal Virgins found guilty of sexual misconduct. In one of his letters, Pliny the Younger reports that the emperor Domitian condemned the chief priestess to the underground chamber - a symbolic burial alive even if the actual cause of death would have been starvation. Pliny the Elder, Plutarch and Dio Cassius all give accounts of pairs of Gauls and Greeks being buried alive in Rome at times of great stress as human sacrifices. It was clearly an unusual form of punishment but certainly not one that was unknown.
Decapitated bodies in Roman cemeteries suggest the same range of possible explanations as for prone burials - fear of ghosts walking, criminal execution, mutilation of a criminal's body after death, even religious sacrifice.
Yet the variations between decapitated burials are intriguing. Sometimes the head is placed back in its correct anatomical position; sometimes it is placed between the legs or near the feet. Occasionally an extra head is supplied for an otherwise completely normal burial. In some instances, the neck vertebrae show no evidence of cutting, suggesting that the head was removed from a skeleton that had been allowed to decompose fully. Again, a fear of ghosts walking may be the best explanation for burials that appear 'respectful' in all other ways.
Execution by beheading was a common punishment in the Roman world - although one typically reserved for the 'better class' of criminal, such as Roman citizens. Some decapitated bodies found during excavation do suggest this form of execution. Three Roman decapitated bodies were found this year in Cambridge, including one with contemporary sword cuts around his head. The blow that finished him off was aimed from behind. At Dunstable, an excavation in the 1960s produced eleven decapitations that looked to the excavators like executions with the sword blow aimed at kneeling figures from behind.
In Rome, the bodies of common criminals were mutilated or maltreated after death. On the Esquiline hill, there was a place for servile execution - such as crucifixion or burning - where, according to Tacitus, those denied formal burial were left exposed for the dogs and birds to eat. Sejanus, Tiberius's lieutenant who was condemned as a traitor, was executed and his body exposed (along with those of his children) on the Stairs of Mourning in view of the Forum. The same punishment was given to some unpopular emperors. Suetonius, for example, tells how the emperor Vitellius was executed, and his corpse dragged to the river Tiber.
This mutilation after death - the so-called poena post mortem - is therefore another possible explanation of some decapitated burials in Romano-British cemeteries. In many cases, the head was almost certainly removed after death, as archaeological study of the vertebrae of the neck has shown the head was often removed by careful cutting from the front. This cannot be done with the person alive without releasing prodigious quantities of blood as the jugular is cut.
Strangest of all are the possible 'religious' decapitations. At Brougham in Cumbria, three bodies have been found that were cremated without their heads. The archaeologist Hilary Cool has suggested the heads were perhaps kept back for subsequent religious or magical acts - further evidence of the head cult seemingly attested at St Albans and elsewhere.
At one site, the Lankhills cemetery in Winchester, seven late Roman decapitated burials excavated in the 1960s have been interpreted as human sacrifices. All seemed to be paired with other elaborate graves in the cemetery. All were 'poor' - five were uncoffined - and all had been carefully beheaded from the front with a knife. Their heads were placed near their legs. Two of the burials showed other signs of violence. One had a knife mark on his lower jaw, while another was buried in an awkward position. Could these have been slaves, sacrificed to accompany their masters into the afterlife?
Recently, archaeologists from Hampshire County Council have returned to excavate again at the Lankhills cemetery. Among several new decapitated skeletons, excavators found the tiny headless body of a three-to-four year old child.
Anyone who doubts the Roman capacity for cruelty should read the reports of Eusebius, the 4th century Early Christian Father, on the executions of Christian martyrs. Most striking is the continuation of Iron Age 'overkill' procedures, as seen in bog bodies such as Lindow Man. St Sebastian, one famous Christian martyr, was shot with arrows, beaten on the head and then beheaded outside Rome in the 3rd century.
So the Romans may well have created one of the greatest civilisations in human history - but death in Roman Britain could be cruel and violent, and burial often involved superstition, macabre procedures and spite.
Alison Taylor is the author of 'Burial Practice in Early England' and 'Cambridge: the Hidden History' (both published by Tempus), and is the Head of Outreach and Editor for the Institute of Field Archaeologists
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005