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What’s in the pot?

What's in the pot?
We’re at Colchester Museum’s conservation lab, and I’m here with Emily, the osteologist for the Decoding the Dead project, and she’s going to tell us a little bit more about Roman cremations. Thank you, Carolina. So cremation was actually the predominant burial rite for large parts of Roman Britain.
And how they differ from inhumations: with an inhumation, the individual was placed in the grave, and they were covered over, maybe adorned with various objects; while the cremations, the individual was placed on the pyre, and they were burnt down, and eventually the remains were collected and potentially placed in one of these vessels, like these here. The cremation vessels that we have in the museum tend to fall into three different materials. We’ve got metal cremation urns, glass, and ceramic. Now, that doesn’t count the cremation vessels that we would have that don’t survive archaeologically, so anything in wood, leather, anything like that. And the different materials tell us different things about the individuals.
This is a lead cremation vessel, and lead was quite an expensive material and expensive to work. So it’s the rarest kind of urn that we find and probably would have been the most expensive. After that, we have glass, which we find more of, but they’re still more unusual. And again, there would’ve been an expense associated with making it, so you had to be able to afford to buy it. Finally, we’ve got these ceramic vessels, which are the most common type of cremation vessel that we have, and they vary tremendously in size and in quality.
That’s not to say that anyone who had a ceramic vessel was necessarily poorer than someone who used a glass one, because they vary so much in quality. But this particular example is the most common type of grayware cremation vessel that we get. So these vessels don’t necessarily represent everyone. They just represent what survives in the archaeological record, so anyone who’s been unurned, or people who had been buried in vessels of materials that wouldn’t survive archaeologically, we don’t have and are not represented. Well, that’s the same that we get in the bone as well. I mean, when the individual is placed in the pyre, and the pyre burns down, not all of the material actually survives.
And then the mourners at the funeral will then pick and choose which bits of the remains are then memorialised and kept for later. So they might not necessarily have retrieved all of the bone from the funeral pyre. There may have still been quite a lot that was left behind. And we do see that when we are looking through these fragments of bone, that actually it’s only a sample of an individual. Quite often you do find as well, with modern farming techniques, a lot of cremation cemeteries were subject to plough damage, so a lot of the bone would’ve been scattered and destroyed as a result of modern contamination.
So as you say here with the vessels, we get the same with the individuals as well. It’s only a sample of a sample that we are seeing.

As academics and researchers, we have a lot of questions about the individuals whose cremated remains reside in the museum. To find some answers, Dr Carolina Lima met with Osteologist, Dr Emily Carroll to discuss what an osteoarchaeological analysis (the methods, techniques and theory used to study ancient bones) can tell us.

The family of the deceased would choose which fragments and remains to keep from the funeral pyre, so the contents of each pot in the Colchester collections vary greatly. Because only specific bones can reveal information about, for example, the biological sex or age, it’s not always possible to build a complete picture of each individual.

A lead vessel COL_20 was discovered in a grave which was covered by a barrow. The lead vessel contained a glass vessel which contained the cremated remains.

The Mersea Barrow Burial Vessels. ©Colchester Museums. Image Credit Douglas Atfield

So who was COL_20? If you were a museum specialist, what information would you want to know about them? Share the questions you’d ask in the discussion area below.

Move to the next Step to discover more about individual COL_20.

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Dead Interesting: Uncovering Roman Britain in Old Museum Collections

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