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Colchester Museums conduct first scientific analysis of Roman cremation burials in Britain

PUBLISHED: 16 July 2021


Colchester Museums, in partnership with the University of Reading and with funding from Arts Council England, have worked with experts around the country to conduct the first significant scientific investigation of early Roman cremation burials in Britain.

In a project combining experts on human remains, chemical analysis and Roman archaeology the identities of over 40 Romans have been reconstructed.

Fifteen of these will be displayed in a new exhibition to be held at Colchester Castle this summer, opening on the 24 July.

Colchester was the first city established by the Romans in Britain and its cremation burials are therefore the earliest and amongst the most numerous in the country. The Romans cremated their dead for the first two centuries after the conquest, but the scientific techniques available have historically limited what we could say about these remains. Though many of these burials were excavated over 100 years ago in Colchester, they have remained in stores waiting for the science to catch up – until now!

Using the burnt bone fragments, experts at the University of Reading and Durham University have determined the age and sex of these individuals, as well as any diseases they suffered before their death. Isotope analysis of skull fragments has revealed that not all the people found were local to Colchester – with around 25% having spent their early childhood elsewhere, possibly even as far as modern-day Greece, Italy or Germany.

Further analysis of the bone fragments also tells a story about the funerals: for example, archaeologists can analyse the colour of the bone to reconstruct the size and heat of the funerary pyres. One of the most elaborate cremations – buried not in Colchester but at nearby Mersea Island – was a man in his late 30s or 40s who is not local and who may have been brought up in Western Germany or Belgium.

Previous research using lipid residue analysis showed that after his remains were cremated and collected, they were covered at enormous expense with Boswellia frankincense from East Africa – the first evidence of the use of frankincense in Britain.


Many of the cremations may be those of locals, who seem to have adopted Roman burial rites and grave goods quickly. This may even have been the reason why Boudica, less than 20 years after the invasion of Britain did not discriminate between Colchester’s Romans and its natives when her forces burnt the city to the ground in AD 61.

All the evidence paints a picture of a diverse population living in Colchester around 2000 years ago: men and women, children and the elderly, people who died young and those who lived for years with disease, the wealthy elite and the common people of Colchester.

Professor Hella Eckardt, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Reading, said: “We have long known about mobility and migration from inscriptions on stone, but this new scientific analysis of human remains has allowed us to uncover the information that cannot be unlocked from artefacts, painting a much richer picture of what life was like at the edge of the Roman Empire in the First Century AD.”

Glynn Davis, Senior Collections and Learning Curator at Colchester Museum, added: “This has been an incredible opportunity to get beneath the skin of Roman Britain. The results of osteological and isotope analysis have revealed a fascinating insight into the people who lived and died in Roman Colchester almost 2000 years ago. Combining research into our historic museum collections with recent archaeological investigation has enhanced our understanding of the funeral practices in and around the Roman city in the early years of Roman rule.”

Councillor Darius Laws, Colchester Borough Council Portfolio Holder for Economy, Business and Heritage, said: “Find out more about this incredible research by visiting Decoding the Roman Dead at Colchester Castle, this summer. The exhibition is suitable for the whole family, and the friendly Castle team cannot wait to welcome visitors and help transport them back over 2,000 years to Roman Colchester.

The exhibition, Decoding the Roman Dead opens at Colchester Castle on 24 July 2021 until 06 January 2022.
 

Page last reviewed: 16 July 2021

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