The fabulous Reading Museum has an entire long-standing gallery dedicated to Roman Silchester: the nearby Roman civitas capital Calleva Atrebatum (Calleva of the Atrebates), now in north Hampshire. In many ways this is an excellent gallery packed with finds from 19th-century investigations and updated regarding more recent investigations, principally by Reading University led by Professor Mike Fulford. I’d definitely encourage a visit!
Yet, as a mortuary archaeologist, the display is rather anxiety inducing because, while so much is seemingly know about the lives of Silchester’s inhabitants from their material remains, we actually have strikingly little evidence for the dead of the city: their mortuary and commemorative practices or their cemeteries. In this regard, it is important to remember that many Roman cities have extensive, multiple, extramural cemeteries but these usually only get found when 19th-21st-century developments disturb them. Examples include York, Winchester, Cirencester and so on. Yet in cases where the Roman towns have no modern counterpart overlying them, or disturbances too place without either antiquarian oversight or archaeological investigations, such investigations are either limited or absent. Therefore, Silchester is a sobering reminder of how little is known about the death rituals and commemorative practices for centuries of inhabitants of the Roman city and its environs. The large cemeteries that likely encircle Calleva have simply not been investigated.
This is not in any way necessarily bad, but it does mean that the Reading Museum display affords limited space to Roman-period mortuary practices, contrasting with (say) the Grosvenor Museum in Chester, the Museum of London or Colchester Museum. This stark contrast should remind us about being too comfortable and generic in our inferences about the variability and complexity of mortuary practice in Roman Britain, for while we have increasingly rich evidence and a battery of techniques to investigate them, even some principal urban centres yield slender evidence.
The ‘Death and Burial’ display in the Silchester gallery at Reading Museum does do its best in these circumstances, however. Between a head of the god Serapis and a display on ‘Gods and Goddesses’, the disposal and commemoration of the dead is thus afforded the traditional place in the academic study of Roman Britain, as one of religion and ritual. This contrasts significantly with many displays of mortuary evidence for prehistoric and early medieval museum galleries, where graves are often rightly also seen as sources of social, political and economic evidence.
What is displayed? There is a ceramic sprinkler bottle found in association with a sarcophagus of Bath stone in 1852, a gravestone found in 1577 (difficult to discern: ‘to the memory of Flavia Victorina…’). There are two pieces of sculpture that might derive from a funerary context: parts of a statue, perhaps to Mars. There are also stone pine cones, which may have held a funerary significance and derived from the Mediterranean. The panel also illustrates the late 4th-/5th-century ogham-inscribed reused column which hints at late/sub-Roman activity in the town commemorating an Irish soldier or settler called Ebicatus. It is the only ogham inscription in southern England, a truly unique and much debated discovery often aired in debates regarding the dying days of Roman Britain.
Of most interest to me, however, given my reflections on other ways in which museums display the cremated dead, is the presence of two ceramic vessels, each found containing human cremated remains and one still demonstrably doing so. In relation to the text, which explains that cremation tended to be an early Roman practice, with inhumation taking over in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, they are merely indicates of a time and a disposal practice. We learn nothing of cremation ceremonies or cemetery landscapes. Moreover, these are the only human remains I noticed on display in Reading Museum, perhaps regarding appropriate as they do not resemble an articulated human skeleton and in turn do not immediate strike visitors as the traces of a once-alive human body.
Limited in the detail afforded is largely understandable given the paucity of evidence. Hence, the display of the cremated remains is – as with so many other museum displays – afforded no context or explanation. The fact these are human remains, and part of a complex multi-staged funerary process, is left to the viewers’ imagination. As I’ve identified elsewhere, while curators often develop innovative ad hoc solutions, museums struggle to display the cremated dead in a responsible and informed fashion.