Roman urban mortuary practices are complex and varied. Cemeteries were all extramural, often on the main routes outside the gates. Wealthier tombs and gravestones would have lined roadsides and riversides.
In Britain, excavations of extramural Roman cemeteries sometimes reveal disturbed gravestones but rarely ones in situ. Likewise, we might find the base of a substantial tomb, but we are usually unable to reconstruct its superstructure with any certainty. Unlike certain Mediterranean sites, most famously the tombs of the Isola Sacra, Ostia, visualising Roman extramural necrographies of Romano-British urban centres is more of a challenge.
In the Roman Gardens in Chester is an arrangement of stones that attempts to reconstruct from fragments a wealthy Roman tomb that once stood to the south of the Dee. The garden is filled with building and monumental stonework collected from across the Roman city.
The ellipsoid sign is situated on a stone broken-columnar base adjacent to the stone arrangement. The text gives a solid and rich normative summary of some aspects of Roman mortuary practice. It outlines how Roman law forbade burial inside the boundaries of the city and then explains that tombs sometimes provided foci for the burial of the whole household and served as foci for commemorative rituals involving meals eaten at the tomb and festivals.
It explains that the coping stones on display included two from Eaton Road, Handbridge associated with the cremated remains of a young adult. This roadside location beside Watling Street would have been a popular location. This is complemented by the possibility that other tombs were located by the river perhaps related to symbolic ideas of the water as a medium of reaching the underworld.
Supporting this idea is a 3rd-century depiction of Charon ferrying souls across the River Styx.
Below is an artist’s reconstruction of Rosalia – the scattering of roses on the graves of the dead. Here we see men and women outside a burial enclosure and women within adorning the tomb itself. I like the contrasting red and white coloured stones, mirroring those on display.
Despite the luxurious nature of the funeral monument, the illustration evokes something relatively modest and the disposition of figures gives this a rather humble feel. I like it.