More than 230 graves have been uncovered at a necropolis in the French city of Autun, revealing a diverse mix in burial practices over a period of nearly 200 years, as well as luxury grave goods from the 3rd and 4th centuries AD that highlight the wealth of some of its ancient inhabitants.
The site in the Saint-Pierre-l’Estrier quarter of Autun, or Augustodunum as it was known in antiquity, was explored in the summer of 2020 by archaeologists from Inrap in collaboration with the Autun City Archaeology Service. The large necropolis emerged around AD 250, when the three main necropoleis in the city were in decline. Why there was this shift remains unclear, but the new necropolis provided evidence of higher social diversity. It was also a time when Christianity was on the rise.
Excavations directed by Carole Fossurier found a range of different burial practices. There were mausoleums, a wooden building, and a tile structure, which resembled burials of the early empire, as well as five sandstone sarcophagi and 15 lead coffins.
These burials yielded grave goods that indicate the wealth of Autun’s elite. One exceptional find is a cage cup or vas diatretum, a reticulated glass vessel that is one of the highest forms of Roman glass art. It was found in fragments, but will be carefully restored to its complete form, including its inscription: Vivas feliciter (‘Live in bliss’).
Only around ten complete examples of this type of refined glassware are known, and they may have been restricted to those closest to imperial power. Archaeologist Michel Kasprzyk says, ‘Other examples of vas diatretum or cage-cup glass have been found across the whole Roman Empire – from Britannia to Egypt and North Africa – but also in non-Roman lands. However, this kind of Roman glass is very rare, and complete examples are scarcer (fewer than ten for the whole ancient world). In cases where the context of their discovery is known, they come from graves with luxury goods, such as the Taranes grave (North Macedonia), which also contained a large silver dish and an inscribed gold crossbow brooch – these seem to have been an imperial gift. Many come from places near important Late Roman towns (in Roman West Cologne, Trier, Milan, Rome, Aquileia, or Carthage), but also rich Late Roman villas, such as, in Gaul, the Villa Séviac.’
Other impressive artefacts unearthed include a set of amber pins, an embossed gold ring, and a gold ring, all from the largest sarcophagus in the burial ground. The team also found pins and rings made of jet, and further gold jewellery, including earrings. Analysis of fragments of fabric recovered from a lead coffin showed they were woven with golden thread and detected traces of purple, all pointing to the wealth of the people who could afford such costly materials in their graves.
Kasprzyk explains, ‘The high number of luxury grave goods – the vas diatretum, the gold embroidered clothes – gives us a good insight into the local ruling aristocracy, previously known solely from early 4th century texts. These texts, called the Panegyrici latini, were some kind of speeches showing close relationships between the elites of Autun and the courts of emperors Constantius Chlorus and Constantine, who ruled from Augusta Treverorum (now Trier in Germany) between AD 293 and 312. We knew that some luxury marble funerary ornaments – like the marble sarcophagus of Euphronia and a marble slab with the Greek funerary inscription of Pektorios, one of the oldest pieces of archaeological evidence for Christianity in Gaul – were found at the Saint-Pierre-l’Etrier graveyard. Late Roman mausoleums were still standing in this graveyard before the French Revolution. Many lead coffins were also known at Saint-Pierre, but we had no expectations of discovering the rich grave goods found in the summer of 2020, probably mainly due to the lack of recent excavations on the site.’