A recently-completed cemetery excavation close to Colchester’s Roman circus has revealed that some of Camulodunum’s citizens marked their grave plots with ditches and wooden fences. It had previously been speculated that, during the Roman period, those unable to afford stone monuments might have used wooden markers or mounds of earth to distinguish individual burials. Now a four-month investigation by Colchester Archaeological Trust has unearthed clusters of inhumations dated by grave goods and other finds to the 2nd and 3rd century and surrounded in some cases by lines of small post-holes up to about 20cm in diameter.
‘This is certainly extremely unusual – I have never seen anything like it before,’ said CAT chief archaeologist Philip Crummy. ‘We have excavated about 400 inhumations and cremations here with much that is unusual. For example, we found areas of fenced burials at either end of the site, 80m apart, and it seems we are dealing not with one great cemetery area but a collection little plots used by different groups or families.’
Although little bone has survived due to Colchester’s acidic soil, some of the individuals in the fenced graves had been laid to rest with objects such as pots and, in two cases, mirrors. Iron studs indicate that several were buried wearing shoes, while one grave contained a jet medallion carved with the face of Medusa. Some of the burial plots were demarcated by narrow ditches, a practice hinted at during previous excavations in Colchester but never seen so clearly before.
‘Some years ago, we found a cemetery near here, with around 600 burials mostly 4th century Christian, crammed together and oriented east-west,’ said Philip. ‘Largely obliterated by these, however, we could see earlier north-south burials, and evidence of ditches. I wonder if this was typical of burials in the immediately pre-Christian period, at least in Colchester?’
Closer examination of the boundary ditches on the latest dig led to a poignant discovery: small, shallow grave cuts, arranged in lines end to end. While no skeletons have survived, the size and shape of the graves have led the team to interpret them as those of children.
‘We seem to have an unusually high number of child burials on this site,’ said Philip. ‘Most of them are unaccompanied but in some we have miniature pots which we have come to recognise as a diagnostic feature of children’s graves. One grave was particularly well-furnished with a mirror, a pair of iron shears, and what could be a small, copper-alloy candlestick. These graves were characteristically shallow and lacked coffins. A few of them contained vessels that had fallen over after being buried showing that they had lain in a void. This suggests the graves were simply shallow hollows in which the bodies and any grave goods were placed. Each of these pits was then covered with a layer of wooden boards laid side to side at ground-level over which was mounded the upcast.
He added: ‘It is very rare that we get the chance to dig a burial ground from this period without it being disturbed and obscured by later use – this site has the potential to tell us so much about this part of Colchester’s history.’
‘This is the latest of a series of excavations linked to the redevelopment of Colchester Garrison. We have excavated over a thousand burials over a wide area and seen a range of subtly-varied burial traditions. The overwhelming impression is one of cosmopolitan diversity in Roman Colchester.’