Roman Death

On day 3 of the EAA conference, I attended the session ‘Social Archaeology of Death in the Roman World: New Data and Perspectives’. As a specialist in early medieval mortuary archaeology, I am very keen to learn the latest in theories and methods applied to the study of the immediately preceding Roman period across Europe. What an opportunity to compare and contrast interpretations and perspectives as well as hear about the latest discoveries!

The Absent Dead

The session was organised by Llorenc Alapont (Spain), Luidi Pedroni (Spain) and Gael Brkojewitsch (France).

The papers looked very exciting. I was looking forward to the paper by Esen Ogus (Texas Tech University USA) about Roman sarcophagi, Bernardo Zupanek (Museum and Galleries of Ljubljana, Slovenia) about the topogpraphy of death at the cemetery of Emon, Luidi Pedroni about the necropolis of Porta Nola, Pompeii, Gael Brkojewitsch on the funerary practices in the Phlegraean Fields cities during the Roman period. I was also looking forward to hearing about the early Christian necropolis of Son Pereto (Mallorca) by a range of Spanish researchers, the study of skeletons inside the casts from Pompeii by Llorenc Alapont, and the mortality of soldiers in Roman Dobrudja by Birliba Lucretiu and Curca Roxana-Gabriela (both Romania). Then there was research on the Roman funerary monuments in the sanctuary and thermae of the municipium of Edetanoru, Lliria, Valencia, Spain by Vicent Escriva Torres.

Time Wasters

Sadly none of these 7 papers were presented. The speakers and the organisers were no-shows. They hadn’t bothered to turn up or tell the EAA that they were not going to turn up. If any of them read this, or anyone who knows them reads this, it would be interesting to know (a) whether they actually exist, (b) whether they do have any new archaeological perspectives or data at all regarding the Roman dead and (c) why they think it is justified to waste my time. I can imagine one or two failed to get funding or had personal crises, but not all seven and that still doesn’t explain why the organisers didn’t formally cancel.

Of course, it wasn’t just my time they wasted. They wasted the time of a room-full of delegates who had travelled thousands of miles between them and paids large sums of money to participate in this important international conference. But most of all, they put the three speakers who did show up in a terrible position. They had to chair their own session and present papers to an impoverished assembly.

Three Heroes Save the Day!

What we did get, however, were three superb presentations. They deserve special commendation for dealing graciously with the situation, but also for presenting some fascinating studies of Roman period archaeology.

Roman Lamps

Robert Frecer presented on ‘Lux Mortis: a material study of Roman lamps in funerary practice in Gerulata. His Masters thesis at Charles University, Prague, he looked at the cemeteries around a Roman fort and their varied uses of lighting equipment in cremation, bi-ritual and inhumation graves.

Roman Catacombs

Next up was Helene Reveillas of INRAP, giving an amazing study of the complex catacomb of Saints Peter and Marceilin in Rome and the detailed 3D study of hundreds of human skeletons packed into them. As well as the phenomenal methodology of dealing with such a complex mortuary context, the finds including a wide range of artefacts and evidence that plaster was used to surround many bodies; lots of ‘exotic’ eastern rites at that time.

Roman Cremation Graves

Finally, we had Tino Lelekovic of the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts exploring the changing uses of ‘busta’ cremation graves (where the cremation took place over the pit and the pit has remained, filled with pyre-debris) in Illyricum in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. One of the things that struck me about Tino’s paper was the evidence that some very late busta graves also contained artefacts uncommon in burials of the late 3rd century; artefacts and the choice of cremation were both archaic and therefore a statement of identity. Tino also explained how only since the end of the Yugoslav era have grave-goods been regularly studied together with skeletons and cremation graves analysised at all; prior to this workmen would tell archaeologists of their discovery of skeletons only after looting the grave-goods.

Conclusion

Despite the comic incompetence of the organisers, the three presenters who showed up gave contrasting yet equally fascinating studies of the potential of Roman mortuary archaeology. All credit to them and I look forward to seeing a wide range of new research at a future venue on this important theme.

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