In the late 4th or early 5th century AD a dignitary left the north gate of Venta Belgarum, modern Winchester, for the last time. His final journey was a short one, but it was not taken alone. Beyond the city gate, the Roman road split, forking left towards Corinium, Cirencester, or right to Calleva Atrebatum, Silchester. Those accompanying the man turned left. Here the road was lined by Venta Belgarum’s northern cemetery which, in accordance with Roman law respected throughout the empire, had grown up beyond the city limits. Passing graves that had filled over the last 350 years, the group processed towards their destination, about 450m away, a vacant plot near the cemetery’s furthest boundary.
The dignitary lay within a simple casket of sawn planks, probably oak, nailed firmly together. Yet no one who caught a glimpse of the figure within could have doubted his status. The badges of office that had distinguished him in life were arranged around his body. Only one of these appears to have been worn: a magnificent gilded crossbow brooch clasped over the right shoulder. Although a feature of life in early Roman Britain, garments that required fastening with a brooch had largely fallen out of fashion by the late 4th century, distancing this individual from the clothing worn by ordinary townsfolk. The brooch probably pinned an impressive cloak that wrapped the corpse like a shroud.
Any such cloak would have obscured a further, important symbol of the deceased’s rank: his belt. Rather than being worn by the corpse, this was neatly folded and placed on his legs, where it would be far more visible to onlookers. The quality of the piece was equal to this treatment, for the gilded silver buckle and amphora-shaped strap end would have been a rare sight in Roman Britain. Only one other example of belt-fittings made from this metal has been found in a grave, from near Gloucester. But even these fittings are eclipsed in rarity by the style of copper-alloy and iron spurs riveted to soft leather boots lying beside the body. Hilary Cool has argued that similar spurs, hitherto unknown in Romano-British burials, are visible on an ivory panel showing the half-German Roman general Stilicho, marking them out as part of the costume of soldiers or officials of the highest rank.
An inscription, picked out in black copper-sulphide lettering on the bow of the crossbow brooch, spells out the exotic nature of these grave goods. One side wished the owner VTRE FELIX, or ‘good luck’, while the other made an error when it proclaimed VENE instead of BENE VIVAS. Intended to mean ‘live well’, this mistake was widely committed by Continental artisans, but has yet to occur on an object of unambiguously British manufacture. While such conspicuous markers of status indicate that the deceased had indeed lived well, if he was as old as the brooch he had also lived long. The gilding had worn away in places, while one of the three distinctive bulbous terminals had snapped off, hinting at decades of daily wear and tear. Now those long years of service were met with their final reward: a funeral with the Late Roman equivalent of full military honours.
There is no way of knowing how many people turned out to witness this carefully choreographed funerary display. Yet if the individual was as distinguished in life as his grave goods make him in death, there is a strong chance that he was an official or soldier whose burial was capable of drawing crowds. If so, it is likely that the answer to a question exercising modern scholars would have been commonplace among the Late Roman mourners: where was he from?
Return to Lankhills
The individual described above is only the most exceptional of 338 burials uncovered during Oxford Archaeology (OA) excavations at Lankhills, Winchester. A degree of guesswork is involved in reconstructing his funeral, especially as the fragmentary skeleton was not certainly male, though the grave goods make this overwhelmingly likely. Yet, despite his prominence, this dignitary was not the only individual with a belt set to be laid to rest at Lankhills. While the others are less refined, a total of 20 such burials are known. This is striking as there is only one other site in Britain where they are found in any quantity – the seven from Scorton, near the garrison town of Catterick. Such a conspicuous cluster has set Lankhills at the heart of debate about ethnicity and burial. Since the 1960s, the varied rites and conspicuously widespread presence of grave goods at the site have been seen as key to unlocking the diversity of Late Roman Britain.
Situated on the western slopes of the Itchen Valley, the Lankhills cemetery site lay beyond Winchester’s urban sprawl until the Victorian period, when it was colonised by two luxury villas. In 1907 a school was founded on the spot. Initially the villas were modified to serve the needs of this new institution, but in 1961 work began on a custom-built dormitory known as the School House. It was during construction that the first human remains were detected. Hurriedly mounted rescue observations confirmed the existence of both inhumation and cremation burials. With plans afoot to extend the school buildings, a major campaign of excavations was conducted between 1967 and 1972, unearthing 458 graves. Although those proposed extensions never came, the legacy of the plans was a landmark volume by Giles Clarke, published in 1979, that transformed Romano-British cemetery studies.
As well as setting a new benchmark for the detailed treatment of burials, Clarke’s study was profoundly influential for proposing the existence of two ‘intrusive’ groups within the cemetery population. Dependent on grave goods to deduce ethnicity, Clarke argued that one group made its presence felt through a broadly uniform set of burial rites, while the other was chiefly remarkable for doing things in a different way to everyone else. The latter group expressed themselves with ample grave goods, and particularly personal ornaments, as well as coins positioned away from the deceased’s mouth, and a general absence of pots. Clarke interpreted these as Anglo-Saxon burials.
Clarke’s other group also featured lavish grave goods. Ornaments and equipment were worn by the corpse, with females displaying necklaces and bracelets, while men wore the distinctive belt and brooch sets. Offerings, normally amounting to a single pot for men and a pair for women, would be placed beside their right foot. An absence of hobnails indicated that this group were sent to the grave without their shoes. These burials with belts, also a feature of the OA excavations, are certainly a striking aspect of the Lankhills site. Similar accoutrements are far more common along the Danube frontier, leading Clarke to conclude that this group were from Pannonia – that is, modern Hungary.
Over the years Clarke’s interpretation of these funerary assemblages has had both supporters and detractors. The OA excavations occasioned by the demolition of the 1960s School House provided an opportunity to test these theories by employing a technique that was not available in the 1970s. The impact of oxygen- and strontium-isotope analysis of human teeth is being increasingly widely felt in archaeology, thanks to its ability to give an indication of where an individual spent their childhood years. It is, though, worth stressing that its use in archaeological enquiries is still in its infancy, and the technique will doubtless be refined in years to come. Nevertheless this, coupled with modern approaches to artefacts and osteology, is allowing us to build up an ever more detailed picture of the community laid to rest at Lankhills.
Rites of passage
It was only in the late 3rd or early 4th century that burials began at Lankhills, forming the northernmost part of Winchester’s northern cemetery. Initially restricted to a plot bordered by a ditch to the north, a hedge (later replaced by a ditch) to the east, and the Cirencester road to the west, it is unclear whether the ground had been set aside as cemetery space, or was previously used for agriculture and only later requisitioned for burials. One reason for an increased pressure on cemetery space would have been the shift in popularity from cremation to inhumation burial earlier in the Roman period. Either way, the initial plot at Lankhills was not enough, and while the northern boundary was respected, the late 4th century saw graves packed in ever tighter against the eastern edge, until eventually burial spilled over into the land to the east.
The extent to which civic authorities were involved in cemetery provision remains unclear, but the space at Lankhills was clearly managed. Despite being cut over the course of a century, comparatively few graves intersect, suggesting that they were marked. The vast majority have a roughly east–west orientation, although this was influenced by the nearest major landmark rather than strict cardinal points. Those sunk closest to the road, for instance, were set at right angles to it, whereas elsewhere burials align on the cemetery’s north and east boundaries. Yet while the grave shafts attain a semblance of uniformity, the burial rites exhibited by those placed within them are far more varied.
One of the more surprising discoveries was evidence for seven busta burials, where bodies were incinerated on a pyre positioned over the grave shaft. Comparatively rare in late cemeteries, due to the waning popularity of cremation, these burials were concentrated in two areas. While little charcoal from the pyre fuel was detected, the intensity of the flames had scorched the grave edge salmon-pink, carbonising tubers, weeds, and snails. Such on-site incineration is a reminder that visiting a Roman cemetery could be a very different experience to the peaceful reflection promoted in modern British graveyards. The bereaved were expected to feast beside the grave at the funeral, before returning nine days later, and then for set festivals, such as the paternalia. Although our evidence for this comes from Mediterranean sources, plenty of Romano-British tombstones appear to show funerary feasts, while broken pottery mixed in with backfilled grave soil at Lankhills could well be a relic of the untidy aftermath of these festivities.
The memory of some individuals within the cemetery may have been less eagerly celebrated by their relatives. ‘Deviant burials’ (see CA 244) both prone – that is face down – and decapitated were encountered during both the OA and Clarke excavations. Cut marks on two of the decapitation burials reveal that the spine was severed between the 4th and 5th vertebrae. Undertaken rather more deftly than the crude hacking blows inflicted on what appear to be victims of public execution in York, the soft tissue was sliced open so that a sharp, narrow blade could inserted to remove the head. It seems inconceivable that these people went under the knife while still alive. Precisely what the procedure was intended to achieve is less clear. As both Classical and Celtic religion cast the head as the seat of the soul, it is possible that removing it was a precaution against reanimation of the corpse. Alternatively, the rite may have been intended to release the soul from the head and hasten its journey to the afterlife.
The eight prone burials found by OA show clearer signs of being outcasts. Their graves lie towards the cemetery edges, and are often shallower, or on a different orientation to the others. A number appear to have been tied-up when they entered the earth, and one 26- to 35-year-old female exhibits the uncomfortable posture of someone bound at the elbows and ankles. There are hints that this harsh treatment was sometimes meted out to people who looked different from what was judged normal. One prone burial was a 4- to 7-year-old child with scaphocephaly, a condition that produces a particularly long and narrow skull, while an old man had an elbow that had broken and then fused at an angle of 100°. Both were physically distinct from the rest of the population. As the correct funerary rituals were considered essential for a soul to reach the afterlife, subverting them in this way may have been a spiteful attempt at post-mortem punishment.
It was not just the afterlives of those condemned to prone burials that were hard, as these individuals appear to have endured harsher lives than most interred in this part of the cemetery. Of the eight, three had fractures, while four carried skeletal signatures of hard manual labour. Yet many of the other cemetery occupants show signs of having enjoyed, by Romano-British standards, charmed lives. Despite an unusually mature population, with 30% of the aged skeletons falling in the over 45 or over 60 brackets, their standard of health was generally good. With low levels of disease, fractures or joint problems such as arthritis, there is little sign that strenuous physical activity was normal for these people. Conditions associated with deficiencies such as rickets were also rare, while at the other end of the spectrum three individuals suffered from Diffuse Idiopathic Skeletal Hyperostosis (DISH). Although the cause of this remains uncertain, it has been linked to obesity. Isotope analysis of two of these three people also points to them having enjoyed a particularly rich diet. This further distinguishes them from the prone burials, which had relatively depleted levels of carbon, implying more humble cuisine.
A corner of a foreign field?
Isotope analysis also shed light on ethnicity. Forty of the skeletons unearthed during the OA excavations were tested, although sadly the teeth of the dignitary laid to rest with spurs, belt and brooch did not survive, preventing his origins from being probed in this way. One individual with a belt set and dagger that was a close, although not perfect, match for Clarke’s criteria for a ‘Pannonian’ burial did return a result that would fit a central European origin. It does not, though, vindicate Clarke’s belief in an intrusive population. The man’s belt buckle is of British, rather than Continental, manufacture, and a central European upbringing has proven to be the exception, not the rule. The other six burials with grave goods broadly fitting Clarke’s ‘Pannonians’ returned isotope signals indicating they were born in Britain. This fits with an earlier study by Evans on nine skeletons from the 1960s excavations, which indicated four were British. These results indicate that artefacts such as belt sets have more to do with status than ethnicity.
Yet foreigners were laid to rest at Lankhills. Of the 40 skeletons tested, 11 probably hailed from overseas. Ten had travelled to Winchester from warmer climes, with three most likely reared around the Mediterranean basin, possibly even in North Africa. The remaining seven grew up somewhere in western Europe. One of the females in this category is distinguished by being buried with the only imported pottery from the Lankhills assemblage: two unguent flasks of probable North African manufacture. Although the lady certainly did not grow up in the area where they were produced, it may not be a coincidence that she was born in a region where such imported produce would have been far more common. Winchester seems to have been home to a diverse Late Roman community.
Yet if the conspicuous concentration of belt-set burials is not the signature of an incoming population, what is the explanation? It is well known that military garrisoning patterns shifted in the late period, when soldiers were often billeted in towns. But if the belt sets are a mark of army personnel, which would fit the concentration near Catterick, why are they not more common at towns elsewhere in Britain? One possible clue may be preserved in an official Late Roman document: the Notitia Dignitatum. The most widely accepted reading of this identifies Winchester as the sole British site of an imperial gynaeceum. Believed to be a facility for manufacturing textiles on an industrial scale, and probably encompassing dye-making, dyeing, spinning, weaving, and fulling, running it may well have required several hundred workers.
These would have been a significant portion of Winchester’s Late Roman population. If so, they were probably overseen by a group of high-ranking officials from various origins, proudly wearing the trappings of the imperial state, and growing obese while others toiled on the textiles.
The excavations at Lankhills partly overlapped with Hella Eckardt’s Roman Diaspora project. For more information see: Hella Eckardt (ed.) (2010) ‘Roman diasporas: archaeological approaches to mobility and diversity in the Roman Empire’, Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplementary Series No.78, Portsmouth RI.
Paul Booth, Andrew Simmonds, Angela Boyle, Sharon Clough, Hilary Cool and Daniel Poore (2010) The Late Roman Cemetery at Lankhills, Winchester: Excavations 2000-2005, Oxford Archaeology, ISBN 978-0904220629. Available from Oxbow Books.
PHOTOS: Oxford Archaeology. TEXT: M Symonds.