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Disposal of the Dead in the Iron Age, Roman & Early Saxon periods in South-East England

Saturday 23rd March 2024

Rethinking burial and disposal
practices in the Iron Age South-East

Professor Tim Champion

Recent research has shed important new light on the treatment of the dead in the Iron Age of the South-East and wider areas of southern Britain. New discoveries have expanded our knowledge of formal burial practices, including a tradition of unurned cremation burials, more evidence of unaccompanied inhumations and a regional tradition of extended inhumations in Kent. We also have more knowledge of more complex practices that leave partial human remains in various states. Formal burial, whether inhumation or after cremation, is at one end of a spectrum of practices, that extends through those that leave fragmentary human remains but no structural evidence, possibly to others that leave no archaeologically visible evidence at all. Carbon-14 dating has also shown that many of the visible practices are very short-lived. Disposal practice was highly varied, and selection of an appropriate rite was volatile.


Professor Tim Champion

Tim is an Emeritus Professor of Archaeology at the University of Southampton. He is a specialist in the later prehistory of Western Europe, with a particular interest in the Iron Age of south-eastern England. He is a past President of the Prehistoric Society and of the Royal Archaeological Institute.


Dr John Pearce

John is a Reader in Archaeology at Kings College London. After a first degree in Archaeology and Anthropology (Cambridge) and MA in Roman archaeology (Durham), his doctoral thesis examined Roman provincial burial practice (Durham). He worked at Oxford as research assistant on the Vindolanda writing tablets project and online editions of ancient documents before joining King’s in 2003. His research interests lie in Roman archaeology, especially the provinces of north-western Europe and Italy. He is especially interested in funerary evidence as a source for understanding Roman society, including commemorative memorials, burial rituals, and the remains of the dead themselves.

Pale Death, emperors and the
enslaved: insights into burial from
early imperial Rome

Dr John Pearce

Using evidence from Rome and Campania, especially from recently displayed and excavated tombs, this paper explores the funerary practices of central Italy in the decades contemporary with Rome's contact with and conquest of Britain. The paper samples the tomb of Augustus, the sprawling cemeteries of Rome's suburbium, and the monuments of Pompeii, to investigate how a dynamic funerary tradition was adapted to the diverse circumstances of the dead, from emperors to the enslaved via urban elites. This characterisation is set within the context of the mosaic of burial practices of the contemporary empire. The impact of recent interpretive and methodological developments on archaeological investigation of Roman deathways is reviewed.


A further review of Canterbury's Romano-British cemeteries

Dr Jake Weekes

Following up on an assessment presented in Archaeologia Cantiana more than a decade ago, this paper reports on additional finds over the intervening years and considers how much these have changed the overall picture. We will look at the numbers of burials in the town’s cemeteries, and consider controlled access to particular cemetery plots, compare variant fashions in funerary ritual, and reflect on funerals that lead to burial within a cemetery plot as a marker of local distinctions. A key element of this review is reflecting on a more defined chronology of change in the town over four centuries. This makes for a better contextualisation of the funerals and cemeteries, even with still limited data. Do different places for the dead represent different groups among the living, and separate degrees and types of investment in urbanism over time? Do specific funerary traditions hint at changing identities and social stratification in life and in death?


Dr Jake Weekes

Jake, who completed his doctorate at the University of Kent in 2005, was a part-time lecturer there in Classical and Archaeological Studies from 1999 to 2007. He then co-ordinated the South-East Research Framework for the Historic Environment from 2007 to 2008, before becoming Research Officer for the Canterbury Archaeological Trust. Jake’s research interests include aspects of British Prehistory, Roman Britain, Funerary Archaeology and early medieval Canterbury. His many publications include the chapter on ‘Cemeteries and Funerary Practice’ for the Oxford Handbook to Roman Britain (2014). He was also the co-editor (with Dr John Pearce) of Death as a Process: The Archaeology of the Roman Funeral (2017). 


Dr David Rudling

David, who studied anthropology as an undergraduate, continued at University College London (at the Institute of Archaeology) and was awarded a Masters in Roman Archaeology. Subsequently he studied for his doctorate at the University of Roehampton.  David is currently the Academic Director of the Sussex School of Archaeology and History. Previously, he was Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Sussex, and prior to this Director of Archaeology South-East which is part of UCL. His main research interests include Roman rural settlements and land-use, religion and ritual in Roman Britain, and ancient and medieval numismatics. He is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, a Member of the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists, a Trustee of CBA South-East, Chairman of the Brighton and Hove Archaeological Society, and a committee member of the Surrey Archaeological Society’s Roman Studies Group.

Roman-period burials in
Sussex and Surrey

Dr David Rudling

In 1986 Ernest Black published an article in The Archaeological Journal (143, 201-39) on ‘Romano-British-Burial Customs and Religious Beliefs in South-East England’. This lecture will revisit aspects of Black’s paper and look too at other discoveries, both old and new, from the South-East, but especially from Sussex and Surrey. However, the apparent paucity of burials from the countryside in the South-East, and elsewhere in Roman Britain, remains a major gap in our knowledge of this period and consideration will be given to help explain the ‘missing millions’. 


Fragmented stories:
The potential of disarticulated human remains for investigating Roman mortuary practices

Ellen Green MSc

Mortuary practices represent both a great wealth of archaeological information as well as a difficult tangle of meaning and actions, often elusive within the material record. While much work has been done focusing on the actions and processes behind cremation and inhumation, disarticulated remains within Romano- British contexts have largely been overlooked and seen either as evidence of disturbance or dismissed as artifacts of earlier Iron Age excarnation practices without any further analysis. Disarticulated remains, however, offer an excellent opportunity, both because of their ubiquity throughout the Roman period in Britain and because of the potential of taphonomic and histological analysis in identifying the exact processes the bodies were subject to. This paper seeks to use a case study of a large, disarticulated assemblage from Ewell, Surrey to show how formerly unrecognised mortuary practices can be recognised from in-depth analysis of disarticulated material, and how such an approach may help expand our understanding of minority mortuary rituals. 


Ellen Green, BA, MSc

Ellen is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Reading. She holds a BA in Archaeology and Ancient Civilisations from the University of Durham, as well as an MSc (with Distinction) in Paleopathology. Her work focuses on an integrated investigation of human and animal remains from a first century AD ritual shaft at Ewell in Surrey.


Professor Tony King

Tony is Emeritus Professor of Roman Archaeology at the University of Winchester. After graduating with a BA from the Institute of Archaeology, London, in 1975, specialising in Roman archaeology, he went on to PhD research on Roman samian ware (terra sigillata), also at the Institute of Archaeology, completed in 1985. Meanwhile, he developed teaching at the universities of London, Winchester, Maryland (European Division) and elsewhere, and research interests in Romano-British religion, villa economies, Italy in the 1st millennium BC to the 1st millennium AD, and vertebrate zooarchaeology. Tony was Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of Classical Studies, University of London, 2001-02, and is currently President of the Association for Roman Archaeology. 


Human Remains found at temple sites in Britain and Gaul

Professor Tony King

This talk tackles the interpretation of human remains at Romano-Celtic temple sites in the light of the historical references to human sacrifice and its banning by the emperors. There are methodological issues in the simple interpretation of human bones as sacrificial debris, and several other lines of thought are discussed, including foundation burials, redeposit of earlier burials, reuse of parts of the body, especially skulls, etc. Sites from Roman Britain, such as Hayling Island, Springhead, Folly Lane and Dorchester, plus selected sites in Gaul, such as Fesques and Halatte, are used to exemplify the diverse usage of human remains in Romano-Celtic orthopraxy.


Looking for the dead in
Roman South-East-England -
with help from Northern Gaul

David Calow MA

We probably have human remains from less than 1% of the Romano-British population. What happened to the missing millions? Most archaeological finds are a very small proportion of what there was. Do we need to worry more about missing people? Carefully buried human remains can survive but what we find seems sparse and diverse and it is hard to understand if it is representative. Life for some may have been brutal but lack of finds leads to speculation about archaeologically invisible ways of disposing of the dead. Can we look? Could we identify even one percent more of the missing, especially in the countryside where most people lived? Pyre sites are enigmatic, and cremations easily missed. Burials might be more secure, but some soils are aggressive. Can relatively complete rural cemeteries in South-East England and Northern Gaul help us look for more evidence? Should we look? Current ethical guidance is that human remains should not be disturbed without good reason. Development can provide the reason and limited research projects might gain approval, but excavating unthreatened cemeteries is not an option. Non-intrusive methods such as LiDAR, geophysics and metal detecting might help, but perhaps the best place to look is in the archives using existing surveys including the Roman Rural Settlement Project to build a funerary list at a county level to get a better sample size. 


David Callow, MA, MBA


David is the Honorary Secretary of the Surrey Archaeological Society.  He started archaeology in 1964 with five summers of rescue archaeology in Roman Leicester. Business life took over, but retirement brought another chance with post-graduate degrees at Winchester and Reading and all the opportunities that Surrey Archaeological Society can offer.


Dr Sam Lucy


Sam specialises in later Roman and Anglo-Saxon archaeology and is particularly interested in periods of cultural and social transition. She is the author of The Anglo-Saxon Way of Death (2000), co-editor of Burial in Early Medieval England and Wales (2002) and has published several major site monographs since 2002 with the Cambridge Archaeological Unit. These include work with colleagues on the chronology of the major Spong Hill cremation cemetery, and on the Roman settlement and cemeteries at Mucking in Essex. She is also Deputy Senior Tutor and Admissions Tutor of Newnham College, and from 2016-2023 was Director of Admissions for the Cambridge Colleges.

Fourth- and fifth-century burial in East Anglia: what does it look like, how does it change, and what does it mean?

Dr Sam Lucy

Recent work on the major excavations at Mucking in Essex and Spong Hill in Norfolk, as well as developer-funded excavations in Cambridgeshire, have altered our understandings of later fourth- and fifth-century burial chronology. This paper will explore these altered understandings through a series of case studies and draw some broader conclusions about social change in this key formative period.

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