The Roman Way of Death
Roman cremation experiment
Recreating a Roman funeral, in Cilewent field.
Julie Reynolds from the National Roman Legion Museum is researching the excavation of a Roman cremation cemetery at Caerleon.
The cemetery was in use during the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, and was outside Caerleon’s fortress walls, on the other side of the river Usk. It was against Romans law for bodies to be buried inside a city or fortress.
Julie has discovered the deceased laid on a couch or bier and was placed on a funeral pyre made of oak logs and brushwood. The body was clothed and wore shoes and, in the case of the women, their hair was arranged in styles needing hair pins to secure it.
Personal items such as needles, dice and small boxes were laid along side the body on the couch. Food offerings were also placed next to the body along with ceramic bowls, cooking pots and wine amphorae.
The body and all these offerings were then burnt. When the fire had died a small proportion of the cremated bone and offerings was collected by the relatives and buried in a shallow pit.
Small sherds of coloured glass have been found in the cremations from Caerleon. The glass appears to have shattered and melted. Was the glass deliberately smashed, after its contents had been used to anoint the body, with the pieces thrown onto the pyre, or did it naturally shatter because of the heat?
Does clear glass react differently to coloured glass on a funeral pyre? The clear glass from the cemetery had shattered into cubes rather than irregular sherds and showed little sign of having melted. This glass was probably from a thick walled drinking cup.
Was it smashed and placed directly in the burial pit, or did the heat of the pyre also produce this result?
We are going to recreate a Roman cremation (without a real body!) and see if we can answer these questions. In the future we will be able to excavate this site and see what effect being buried has on the remains.
A Festival of British Archaeology event.