The story of an urn: investigating an unusual cremation vessel

Analysis of one of the Birdoswald cremation vessels has revealed a wealth of new information – as well as some very unusual contents. Tony Wilmott tells all.

Of the three cremation vessels from Birdoswald now on display in the new English Heritage exhibition at the fort (see p.60), one is a very special find. Part of a pair of urns buried in close relationship with each other, it was gently freed from the surrounding soil, bandaged in situ, and carefully lifted and packed to be taken to the Historic England Conservation Lab in Portsmouth for micro-excavation and investigative conservation.

The bandaged urn is removed from the ground.

Before this analysis began, though, X-rays were taken – revealing that there were several artefacts contained within the vessel. As human remains and soil were removed, further X-rays were taken to guide the work and help in the interpretation of the assemblage. Surprisingly, at the base of the pot was a mass of corroded iron ring-mail into which other objects had become embedded. This meant that objects could not be removed individually, and had to be examined remotely. Computed Radiography and Computed Tomography (CT) scanning allowed all materials – ceramic, metal, and organic – to be viewed in a single image, while slices taken from the CT scan provided different views, showing the relationship between objects, and allowing them to be interpreted.

This computed radiography image shows chain-mail links, metal and shale objects, and human bone in the urn.

From these images a total of ten objects were identified, including a broad copper-alloy bracelet, a bead suspended on a copper-alloy wire (apparently attached to the mail fragment), a glass-vessel ring, a copper-alloy pendant and ring, and a small polished shale ring. Sufficient bone survived to show that the burial was that of an adult female.

Any attempt to separate the objects would have resulted in their destruction, so it was decided that the mass in the base of the vessel should be stabilised, and that it would be included in the new exhibition with its contents. Although the urn appeared complete in the ground, it was actually broken into many pieces which required refitting. Before this occurred, the options for display were considered, and it was decided to reconstruct the vessel in two halves, so that it could be displayed as an ‘open book’, showing the pot and its contents to best advantage.

Images: Historic England.