Ceremonies of the dead in Roman times

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As a rule of thumb, we know the Bronze Age from graves and the Iron Age from settlements. Except for a few areas, such as East Yorkshire and Dorset, Iron Age graves in Britain are notoriously rare.

I can find mention of only one Iron Age burial in Northumberland, at High Knowes, Alnham. We should note, however, that the lack of grave goods in the cist burial at Clifton, described in our article of November 6, led the excavator, Mr A.H.A. Hogg, to conclude that it could possibly have been of the Iron Age.

The problem of the ‘elusive dead’ was first brought to notice in the 1930s. Forty years later, a thorough review of the evidence concluded that, over most of Britain, Iron Age people must have disposed of their dead in ways that left no trace in the archaeology. (Rowan Whimster, Burial Practices in Iron Age Britain, 1979, available on http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/7999/).

A more recent writer, however, does not blame the lack of evidence, but rather a too fixed idea about what people ‘ought’ to have done: “The basic misconception...is that past societies should have buried their dead...by a recognisable burial rite and grave type.” (Dennis Harding, Death and Burial in Iron Age Britain, OUP, 2015, p7).

The most common explanation is that they practised excarnation, the removal of the flesh from the bones by decomposition, wild animals, carrion-eating birds etc, or by deliberate butchering. Mysterious structures called ‘four-posters’ are sometimes found in Iron Age settlements, and one suggestion is that they were for this very purpose.

Against this, however, is the fact that no charnel pits have been found in which the remaining large bones might have been placed.

Wherever they went, the Romans changed everything.

Another explanation is that the dead were disposed of in rivers or at sea. Harding believes that burial within settlements may have been commoner than we think, particularly along boundaries, and not always of whole bodies.

This raises the question of the three pits that Professor Jobey found at Gubeon Cottage, featured in last week’s article. They were about 4ft x 3ft x 2ft deep, with hard, well-formed sides. There was nothing in them, except that the filling contained slightly more charcoal than the surrounding occupation earth. No bones of any kind were found on the site.

Given the likely acidity of the boulder clay, it is possible that there had been bones in these pits, whether human, or animal, or both.

Wherever they went, the Romans changed everything. They buried their dead, and had a strict rule that burials should not take place within settlements, hence the graves lining roads leading out of towns, forts and villages.

Amongst the compulsory deductions from the pay of a Roman soldier were his burial club dues, and this is the obvious explanation for some rather splendid military tombstones that have been found. One of the most striking is that of Flavinus, now in Hexham Abbey.

As usual with Roman inscriptions, many of the words are abbreviated, and I have taken the Latin from the interpretation panel at Hexham Abbey: “DIS MANIBVS FLAVINVS EQues ALAE PETRianae SIGNIFER TVRma CANDIDI ANnorum XXV STIPendiorum VII Hic Situs est.

“To the Gods, to the Shades. Flavinus, a cavalryman of the Ala Petriana, standard-bearer in the squadron of Candidus, 25 years (old) with seven years’ service, lies here.”

The top of the stone is damaged, and Flavinus’s features almost obliterated. The overall impression, however, is clear. He rides a spirited horse, leaning forward easily as it springs over a prostrate figure. This is a favourite trope for commemorating a dead soldier.

The cowering savage, presumably a Briton, lies naked and curled up, with wild hair, holding on to his sword, while at the same time shouting for mercy.

Flavinus takes no notice. His eye is fixed on the battle. In his right hand he carries his squadron’s standard. It has a wheel-like ornament at the top, probably the face of the Sun god surrounded by rays. Flavinus has a sheathed sword at his belt, and a helmet surmounted by several plumes, one of which is not unlike the hackle in a Fusilier’s cap.

Two of the most famous Roman tombstones are those of Victor and Regina, both civilians, but closely associated with the Roman Fort of Arbeia at South Shields.

The inscriptions begin ‘DM’, short for Dis Manibus. Modern translations render it as “To the spirits of the departed”, or something like that, but older scholars translated it more literally: ‘Dis’, “To the Gods”, and ‘Manibus’, “To the shades”, meaning the shades of the dead.

Victor was a North African, “of the Moorish nation”, aged 20. He was the slave of Numerianus, a trooper in the First Asturian Cavalry, but Numerianus had freed him and, in the museum’s own translation, “devotedly conducted him to the tomb”. One senses a deep affection between the two men.

The First Asturians were a Spanish regiment, based at Benwell. The presumption is that Numerianus was on a detached duty, and was either setting out or returning from it when his friend died.

Victor is shown at ease, reclining on a couch with a bowl in his hand, while a servant boy, shown at a smaller scale, hands him his wine.

The stone is a fine grained, grey coloured stone, and brings out perfectly the delicate carving of his robe.

Regina’s stone is the more usual sandstone, though probably carved by the same sculptor.

She was of the nation of the Catuvelauni, a large tribe based around St Albans. She was at first the slave, but then the freedwoman and wife of Barates, a merchant of Palmyra in Syria, the remains of which ISIL has done so much to destroy.

Regina is shown in her best clothes, sitting in a wicker chair, as befits her status as a great lady. She sits spinning, with a basket of wool on her left, and her jewel box on her right. She was 30 when she died, and there is again evidence of deep grief.

Underneath the Latin inscription is one in the Palmyrene script: “Regina, freedwoman of Barates, Alas”.

The website Roman Inscriptions of Britain Online points out that the Palmyrene lettering is more confident. Palmyrenes were bilingual in their own language and Greek so we assume that the sculptor also came from Palmyra and was not used to Latin.

The tombstone of Barates, also a Palmyrene, and presumably Regina's husband, exists at Corbridge.

He was a vexillarius, aged 68. The Roman Inscriptions website takes this to mean that he was a flag-bearer. More credibly, given his age, local scholars take him to have been a flag-maker.

What is most striking, however, is the contrast between the sophisticated cosmopolitan communities of Corbridge and South Shields compared with the native British settlement at The Gubeon near Morpeth, where the only sign of Romanitas was two glass vessels and a few items of Roman pottery.