Silbury Hill: the dilemma
Sutton Hoo goes to sea
Editor Mike Pitts
Everyone who lived at the Roman fort at Brougham, Cumbria, was buried in a cemetery close by. Excavation of the graves revealed an astonishing world of pagan beliefs. Hilary Cool explains
Some sites are dug before their time. Such was the case with the cemetery at Brougham in Cumbria. Brougham was long ago identified with Brocavum, a place noted in the 3rd century AD road book known as the Antonine Itinerary. Antiquarian reports had recorded Roman tombstones from the area east of the fort and vicus, an attached civilian settlement, alongside the trans-Pennine road. So excavations were planned when it was known this cemetery would be destroyed by the straightening of the A66.
Unfortunately this was at a time when archaeological concerns were of little importance to road builders, and archaeologists were poorly funded (and, apparently, unable to afford colour film). A preliminary excavation was carried out in 1966. More extensive work was planned for the following year, but the engineering works started early. A small team was faced with excavating a huge area of 70m by 200m at the same time as the road was being built. Under very difficult circumstances they excavated much of a cremation cemetery including urned burials, the foundations of at least two monumental towers, and a large number of features which they thought were robbed graves.
From time to time attempts were made to analyse the archive. One of the reasons this did not advance was that the discoveries did not seem to match preconceptions of what a cemetery should look like. There were too many puzzling features like the robbed graves. This work did reveal, though, the importance of the material recovered: amongst other things there were the best collection of 3rd century glass vessels in the country, an unrivalled group of Samian vessels, and thousands of burnt scraps from objects placed on pyres. The site was dormant rather than forgotten, but remained unpublished.
By 2000 it was felt that it might be possible to publish the site. Expectations of what a cremation cemetery could involve had changed. It was realised there would probably be deliberate deposits of pyre debris as well as formal urned burials. There had also been enormous advances in the study of cremated bone; and it was now possible to date the pottery much more closely. In short, archaeological thought and expertise had finally caught up with what had been found in the ’60s. Much to their credit, English Heritage agreed to fund this work. What we discovered was totally unexpected, and likely to revolutionise the way we look at Roman cemeteries in the future.
Exploring the archive we discovered there was indeed a variety of different deposits. In addition to 123 urned cremation burials and nine formal burials where the bones had been contained in non-pottery containers, there were 65 deposits of pyre debris and two other, more puzzling, deposit types. In four pits a secondary pit could definitely be seen cutting the primary fill exactly as if something had been removed. These were given the name ‘emptied’ rather than ‘robbed’ as there was no way of knowing whether the action had been malicious or not. They may have been temporary resting places for urns prior to their being taken elsewhere for final burial. There is a Roman tombstone from Maryport, for example, that hints that something of the sort may have happened in a burial there.
There were also 12 deposits of vessels that looked precisely like urned burials apart from the absence of human bone. These may well fit into a wider pattern of the deposition of whole vessels for magical or ritual purposes seen elsewhere in Roman Britain. Some certainly appeared to have relationships with the urned burials, suggesting they may have been associated with on-going rituals at the grave after burial.
No convincing pyre sites were found, possibly because of the way the site was dug. Given the quantity of pyre debris, they must have been close. It was clear that individual pyres rather than a communal one were used. The contents of the different features showed no hints of any contamination, as would have been expected if pyre sites had been re-used.
It became apparent that the whole community was being buried here, everyone from babies to old people, women as well as men, and over a relatively short time span. The longest period would be from c AD 200 to 310, but more probably it was 220-300. Within that period it was possible to assign many of the graves to either an early, middle or late phase.
Knowing the age and sometimes the sex of the person being buried, as well as having a very sensitive dating framework, and being as certain as we could be that the pyre goods found with an individual had been on their pyre, provided an incredibly rich dataset to explore. It became apparent that every aspect of the funerary ritual was governed by the age of the deceased and possibly also by their sex, and that there were changing patterns with time. Many of these observations could be explored using statistical significance tests which showed that the associations were highly unlikely to have come about by chance. In this community many items, not just obvious ones like jewellery, were regarded as age and gender specific.
Notable at Brougham were the thousands of fragments of burnt decorated bone veneers. Normally these have been thought of as decoration for boxes, though a recent discovery at Shiptonthorpe, Yorkshire showed similar examples inlaid into a door. At Birdoswald, a fort on Hadrian’s Wall, such veneers have been found with another 3rd century cremation burial fortunately excavated in the laboratory. There, the precise association in the urn with different parts of the body strongly suggested the veneers had decorated an ornamental bier. This seemed a probable explanation for the Brougham fragments too. Such fragments were only found with remains of adults, not with children or adolescents; so we may surmise that the funeral processions of young and old would have appeared very different.
The dead would seem to have gone to their pyres dressed rather than in shrouds. Women and children regularly wore glass bead necklaces, with some women having gold earrings. Brooches were relatively rare, but there were hints at a gender division with crossbow forms accompanying males and others with females. Adults had hobnailed shoes, but hobnails were not found with children so they were bare-foot or wore un-nailed shoes.
Items placed on the pyre included figurines, metal vessels, and military belt and scabbard fittings. Bronze buckets seemed especially associated with women. Animal offerings again occurred only with adults. These included not only the normal range of meat joints and poultry, but also whole cattle and sheep. A most remarkable feature is that from time to time horses were being burnt on the pyre. This has never been observed in a Romano-British cemetery before, and only very rarely elsewhere in the empire. During the 3rd century the garrison at Brougham was a cavalry numerus and, given the combination of military equipment and horses, it is tempting to think that at least some of the individuals buried here were members of the unit.
Much wealth literally went up in smoke with many precious items burnt on the pyres. Nine deposits produced burnt ivory, some of the metal vessels were inlaid with silver, and items of gold and silver jewellery were not uncommon. So many items were placed on some pyres, that it is tempting to think these must have been tiered like the depictions of some imperial funerals on the reverses of coins. In comparison to the pyres of adults, those of children and young people appear curiously bare. This may be a function of when the excavations took place, before environmental sampling developed. The pyres of the young may have been covered with flowers, fruits and other food items, but such remains would not have been retrieved.
The special way of treating the young can be seen more clearly when the grave goods placed in the formal burials are studied. In the earliest phase, for example, colour-coated beakers are seen as uniquely appropriate for young people, both as urns and accessory vessels; and at all times small Samian cups were only ever found with children younger than eight. Special treatment can also be seen in the location of the baby and toddlers’ graves. In the first phase they are scattered throughout the cemetery. In the middle phase they cluster around one of the monumental towers. In the final phase they disappear from the cemetery completely; possibly by then another location outside the area excavated was thought more appropriate for these small children.
Specific types of vessels were also thought appropriate for different adults. Only adult men, and possibly only those of high status, were ever accompanied by glass drinking cups. Though shallow Samian dishes accompanied people of all ages, deep Samian bowls were only found with adults. One of the curious aspects was the age of the decorated Samian bowls when they were placed in the graves. They ranged from perhaps 20 to 30 years old, to more than 70 years old. Other antiques included an enamelled patera that might have been anywhere between 100 and 150 years old when deposited, and glass vessels that had also seen long use. Where it was possible to age the adults buried with these items they were amongst the oldest people in the cemetery. So not only were there differences in the items thought appropriate for children and adults, there were also differences between young adults and the elderly.
The small finds regularly included items we would expect to have come from the Danubian provinces of Noricum, Pannonia and Ilyria (now parts of Austria, Hungary and the former Yugoslavia) or the barbaricum, lands to the north and east beyond the empire’s river frontier. These included various bead types worn by the women and small iron bucket pendants. The latter have never been found in Roman Britain before, but at the time the cemetery was in use were common in the Gothic lands beyond the frontier (modern Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and into Poland). There are hints in the context records that some of the grave pits may have been purified by fire prior to the deposition of the urns, a common practice in the Danubian provinces. There is even a certain amount of epigraphic evidence. One tombstone records the burial of a 70 year old Pannonian, and a 10-12 year old girl was buried in an urn with the grafitto Bata, an Illyrian name.
So it seems highly probable that we have here a unit raised in the Danubian lands and transferred to Britain. It is known that over 5,000 Sarmatians from this area came to Britain after the Marcomannic wars in AD 175; but it is unlikely that the people at Brougham were Sarmatians, as the latter inhumed their dead. It is unfortunate that we do not know the location of Stratonica, the place mentioned in the title of the Brougham numerus. Perhaps future discoveries will help pinpoint their origins more closely.
Does this origin also help explain one of the most intriguing aspects of the site? Two adult women were burnt with both horses and military equipment on their pyres. Though numerii are generally referred to as irregular units, they are not normally thought of as having women amongst their ranks. However, the unit came from the area where the ancient Greeks placed the origin of the female warriors called Amazons. Could numerii be even more irregular than anyone has ever dreamed? Perhaps this is the final story from Brougham whose time has not yet come.
No other cemetery from Roman Britain has produced such a complex picture of funeral rituals as that found at Brougham, and we are left with a final question: is this because the community there was a foreign one, or have the patterns been missed because other excavated sites have fitted preconceived notions of what cemeteries should be, and there has been no need to analyse them in the way we have done at Brougham?
HEM Cool is a director of Barbican Research Associates, who specialise in post-excavation analysis. The other key analysts in the Brougham team were Jerry Evans (pottery), Quita Mould (small finds), Jacqui McKinley (human bones), Julie Bond and Fay Worley (animal bones). Cool thanks English Heritage for helping to rescue this site. ‘The Roman Cemetery at Brougham, Cumbria’, is published by the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies, ISBN 0907764312, £55 till 31 December, then £68
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005