This blog has occasionally touched on Iron Age and Roman mortuary archaeology. I return to this theme here as a retrospective post, looking back to my past research and its different dimensions. To remind you how cool Romano-British cremation practices can be, here is a pic of the lead canister and pipe (a pipe-burial) on display at the Legionary Museum, Caerleon. Libations could be poured down the pipe to ‘feed’/’nourish’ the spirits of the dead interred therein.
The study of death, mourning and commemoration in the late Iron Age and Roman periods in Britain has seen some rich and exciting new research over the last two decades, stemming from new discoveries, analyses and syntheses.While much of my research has focused upon early medieval and late-modern mortuary practices, I have occasionally delved into the evidence and themes pertinent to, the archaeology of the late Iron Age and Roman periods in Britain via 6 themes:
- My Masters thesis explored early Anglo-Saxon funerary reuse of prehistoric and Roman monuments. For comparative discussion within the thesis, I explored Romano-British reuse of prehistoric monuments. Subsequently, I presented a paper at TRAC (Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference) regarding this topic (Williams 1998). This contributes to a broader ongoing debate regarding the character, significance and interpretation of Roman-period perceptions of time, memory, cult practice and burial.
- My Masters and doctoral research both tackled anthropological discussions of cemetery space as an environment for identity construction and negotiation, but also an environment of social and ethnic competition. I explored this through a subsequent TRAC paper and publication, looking at ‘managed’ late Roman cemeteries and early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries as spaces active in the transformation of social relations and identities (Williams 1999). Rarely cited (perhaps for good reason), I’m proud of this piece for overtly tackling some anthropological case studies and thinking about how this might apply to the burial data of the first millennium AD.
- I returned to late Iron Age and early Roman cremation practices, and again via the medium of TRAC, to think about social memory and ephemeral monumentality (monuments built to be destroyed, or at least not to last), in an interpretation of the elaborate sequence of mortuary and ritual practices revealed through Rosalind Niblett’s interpretation of the Folly Lane site (Verulamium) (Williams 2004a). This was explicitly inspired by Susanne Kuechler’s work on melanggan in terms of art and memory through making and destruction.
- Inspired by my thinking regarding cremation practices in early Anglo-Saxon England, I also tackled the interpretation of the roles of ceramics as containers for food, drink and ashes within Romano-Britsh cremation practices in terms of social memory, suggesting that mundane vessels and spoilers, could have been significant through their inclusion in the mortuary process, not simply when high-status bespoke creations were utilised to contain cremains (Williams 2004b).
- When I was asked to write a chapter of an edited book dedicated to the study of cremation in the archaeological record, I decided to write a cross-period review and deliberately show-case the work of Wessex Archaeology (including Jackie McKinley) at the late Iron Age cemetery of Westhampnett (W. Sussex) rather than explore my interpretations of early Anglo-Saxon cremation practices. Here I considered the role of material culture and space in the commemoration of personhood in the ‘Aylesford-Swarling’ cremation graves of southern England (Williams 2008; 2015). I found this quite a profitable exercise, to distance myself from my own specialist period of interest, but to show how themes and concepts apply, with a different emphasis, for the late Iron Age context. Westhampnett displays striking evidence of pyres, the distinctive ‘token’ collection and burial of ‘cremains’, and a careful choreography of burial space. Together, this served to illustration an ‘archaeology of cremation’ that spans the analysis of cremated human bone and other burnt materials to consider artefacts, vessels, space and monumentality.
- Most recently, I’ve discussed Roman cremation practices as part of a broader discussion of how we display the cremated dead in modern museums, focusing on how cremation processes and variability constitute a challenge for curators and an under-theorised, yet widespread, dimension of the presence of the archaeological dead in Britain’s present-day public life and culture (Williams 2016). The Roman Iron Age cremation practices of Denmark are discussed on display, as are Romano-British cremations at Colchester Museum.
I have no future aspirations to conduct dedicated research on Iron Age or Roman-period mortuary practice. However, in the Introduction to my forthcoming book on ‘Cremation and the Archaeology of Death’, I discuss Hilary Cool’s publication of the Brougham cemetery as an example of different dimensions of interpretation, extending the aforementioned themes. Moreover, I aspire to write a future article on how we display the textual, monumental and fragmented traces of the Roman dead in museums, as already discussed (in part) in a previous post about Leeds Museum.
Williams, H. 2016. Firing the imagination: cremation in the modern museum, in H. Williams and M. Giles (eds) Archaeologists and the Dead: Mortuary Archaeology in Contemporary Society, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 293–332. http://hdl.handle.net/10034/618942
Williams, H. 2015. Towards an archaeology of cremation, in C.W. Schmidt & S. Symes (eds) The Analysis of Burned Human Remains, 2nd Edition, London: Academic Press, pp.259-93. http://store.elsevier.com/product.jsp?isbn=9780128004517&pagename=search http://hdl.handle.net/10034/620246
Williams, H. 2008. Towards an archaeology of cremation, in C.W. Schmidt & S. Symes (eds) The Analysis of Burned Human Remains, London: Academic Press, pp.239-269.
Williams, H. 2004b. Potted histories: cremation, ceramics and social memory in early Roman Britain, Oxford Journal of Archaeology 23(4): 417-27.
Williams, H. 2004a. Ephemeral monuments and social memory in early Roman Britain, in B. Croxford, H. Eckardt, J. Meade & J. Weekes (eds) TRAC 2003: Proceedings of the Thirteenth Annual Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference. Oxford: Oxbow, pp. 51-61.
Williams, H. 1999. Identities and cemeteries in Roman and early medieval archaeology, in P. Baker, C. Forcey, S.Jundi & R. Witcher (eds). TRAC 98 Proceedings of the Eighth Annual Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference. Oxford: Oxbow Books. pp. 96-108
Williams, H. 1998. The ancient monument in Romano-British ritual practices, in C. Forcey, J. Hawthorne & R. Witcher (eds). TRAC 97 Proceedings of the Seventh Annual Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference. Oxford: Oxbow Books pp. 71-87.