To the west of Birdoswald fort, on the edge of a high cliff above the River Irthing, lies a Roman cremation cemetery. The dead who were interred there have not been allowed to rest in peace, however: in recent years, the river cliff has seen a dramatic acceleration in erosion, threatening the archaeology of the cemetery. In 1999, Time Team undertook a small evaluation there, recovering a couple of cremation deposits, but the increased erosion observed in 2008 required a much larger response.
It was decided to create an archaeological ‘cordon sanitaire’ by fully excavating a 15m-wide area along the cliff edge, recovering and recording the archaeology deemed under long- and medium-term threat. This work, carried out by the Archaeological Projects Team of (then) English Heritage, aided by a team from Newcastle University’s archaeology department, began only a fortnight after the 2009 Pilgrimage had visited the site. Remarkably, this remains the only excavation of any size to have taken place on a Roman cemetery on the line of Hadrian’s Wall. What did it find?
The first Roman remains to come to light were traces of a metalled road running from the extramural settlement outside the fort to the cemetery. The 3rd-century cremations found by Time Team lay on the west side of this road, away from the eroding cliff edge, and to the north we identified funerary deposits enclosed by a shallow ditched or palisaded boundary. Its outline ran some 61m north–south, but the eastern return was only 7m long before reaching the cliff edge – it was clear that centuries of erosion had removed much of the enclosure and its contents. Ploughing had also taken its toll on the buried archaeology – though, while the cemetery was first identified in 1961 when the field was ploughed for the first time for many years, it seems to be medieval ridge-and-furrow ploughing rather than modern agriculture that had caused the damage.
There were still remains to be recovered, however: within the enclosure, a total of 49 cremation-related deposits were excavated. These were extremely varied, and seem to reflect a number of different ritual practices. Most (34 out of 49) took the form of simple circular or rectangular pits containing charcoal and calcined bone, three of which were slightly elaborated – one with a flagstone base, another with the sides of the pit lined with pieces from a single deliberately broken flagstone, while the third, which was very disturbed, may have been tile-lined.
Might the broken flagstone lining have been referencing a stone cist? Three of these were found, all very different in form. The largest comprised a rectangular pit that was lined and lidded in stone. In one corner was a small deposit of charcoal and calcined bone, and in the other an empty pot, holed in the base and laid on its side. The cist appears to have been covered by a mound whose material had been won from the ring-ditch surrounding it; it is possible that the broken thick stone slab set upright adjacent to this burial had been the base of a tombstone or grave marker.
Another cist, roughly built from cobbles with a small accessory vessel built into the wall, seems to have contained a wooden box into which charcoal and calcined bone had been placed. This container had since decayed, leaving only a pattern of the nails that had once held it together to testify to its presence. The third and last cist was a tiny feature, only 0.35m long, and empty of any burnt material. Close by, a pit seemed to echo the structure of a cist, divided into two compartments by a rough cobble lining. This contained a bare handful of charcoal and burnt bone, but what was particularly interesting about this feature was the three small drinking vessels that had been smashed in the bottom before backfilling – a farewell toast by friends of the deceased?
The dead had not only been laid to rest in cists: we also discovered three long, narrow features, each thought to represent a bustum. Here, a pit is dug, the pyre is erected over it, and the pyre debris then collapses into the pit. One of these was surrounded with a large number of burned stakeholes, possibly representing the supports of the original pyre structure.
Before work began, it was anticipated that there would be many urned cremations – that is to say, cases where the cremated remains had been placed into a pot which was then buried, but not as part of a bigger deposit. The 3rd-century cremation found on the site by Time Team in 1999 was of this type. In the event, only five such burials were found, two of which were closely related. In the first, a small pit contained a mid/late 1st-century BB1 jar, which held the cremated remains of a child of around 5 years of age.
Within the same small ditched enclosure, in a pit cutting into the first, was a second jar of similar type and age, which touched but did not damage the other jar. It contained the cremated remains of a young adult female, aged some 20-40 years. This was a remarkable burial, as it contained an interesting group of objects (see p.44). Given the close association between these two similar cremation burials, and their sequence, might this have been a mother buried beside a child who had predeceased her?
Despite the varied survival of the deposits, they still have the potential to provide a great deal of information, and work is now well advanced on the analysis of the contents of the features – a task which involves many different scientific techniques. Among these is, of course, analysis of the cremated bone itself. It is very clear that the small quantities of bone found in each deposit are nowhere near the amount to be expected from a full body – a difference that is partly due to the fact that the site has been truncated by ploughing in the past, but very small quantities of bone in similar deposits are a familiar feature of Roman cremations found elsewhere.
Of course, this means that it is difficult to assess the age or gender of the deceased individuals, although even with the small amounts present it has been possible to state that both males and females, and adults and juveniles, are present. The ceramics from this part of the cemetery are all broadly Hadrianic-Antonine (AD 117-161) in date, which suggests that here we are dealing with the first garrison of the fort and its dependants. Who were these people? Although we know that the garrison in the early 3rd century was a cohort of Dacians, the 2nd-century garrisons are currently unknown; it may be that proposed isotope analysis will shed some light on the origins of these people.
Meanwhile, analysis of the charcoal has allowed us to identify some of the species of timber used on the pyre. Oak and ash appear to be predominant, though other species were also present. Many deposits contained burnt iron nails, many of which had become fused to calcined bone. These do not appear to have been deposited as grave goods, but are more likely to be from scrap building timber used as fuel. A technique called Fourier Transformed Infra-Red–Attenuated Total Reflectance (FTIR-ATR) spectroscopy, which was used to study heat-induced crystallinity changes in bone (where sufficient bone survived), also allowed us to establish the intensity of burning of the body. Some samples showed temperatures up to 600˚C had been achieved – temperatures that would need a well-constructed pyre with continual replenishment of fuel and a sufficient oxygen supply.
Other than the exceptional urned cremation mentioned above, grave goods of any kind were very sparse within the excavated burials, and most deposits were devoid of any form of finds altogether. Where other objects did accompany these deposits, they were clearly material placed on the pyre, such as melted glass vessels or heat-affected pot sherds. In a few cases pots seem to have been buried in these pits intact, either on their sides or upright, though these were not ‘cremation urns’ in the strict sense that they contained all of the cremated material within these deposits.
The condition of some of the buried pots suggested that they had stood by the pyre during the funeral. These were the only form of ‘structured’ deposit: in most cases, general debris from the pyre had been interred in a very random manner. Distinct from the iron nails mentioned above, some of the deposits did also contain hobnails. Should we take these as an indication that the deceased was clothed for the funeral? If so, there were no other dress accessories among the remains. A small number of organic pyre offerings also seem to have been included: one exceptional deposit, unfortunately very truncated indeed, had carbonised whole fruits including a fig, a date, grapes, walnuts, and a fruit of the Prunus species (which includes plums, cherries, nectarines, peaches, apricots, and almonds) at its base. Other burials also yielded grape pips and fig seeds. These are imported exotic foods, and their presence here represents some of the first evidence of their use at Birdoswald.
A lack of bone was seen throughout almost all of these deposits. It is not, of course, a novel observation, but here it was very clear indeed that it does not seem to have been important to inter more than a representative deposit of pyre material in order to commemorate the deceased. Perhaps the important part of the funerary ritual was the cremation event, rather than the deposition of the remains – the variety of which probably reflects a range of individual choices and beliefs. At Birdoswald, we find a fascinating reminder of the diversity of Roman funerary practices that took place on the frontier.
Tony Wilmott is a Senior Archaeologist with Historic England, and won Current Archaeology’s Archaeologist of the Year award in 2012.
Thanks are due to the team carrying out post-excavation analysis on the excavated remains: Simon Mays (human remains), Emily Carroll (FTIR-ATR spectroscopy), Zoe Hazell (charcoal), Gill Campbell (plant remains), Nicola Hembrey (finds), Jerry Evans (pottery), and Karla Graham and Angela Middleton (conservation).
ALL images: Historic England.