Although it may seem that Romano-British skeletons are common finds, we have actually only ever discovered a minuscule percentage (estimated by some at around 0.1%) of the people who lived in Britain during the Roman period. In Lincoln this small percentage is particularly true, as we have not uncovered the large cemeteries excavated at other major towns such as Bath Gate (Cirencester), Butt Road (Colchester) or Lankhills (Winchester).
Antiquarian finds, casual discoveries and formal excavations have, over the years, identified the main areas of burial (seen on the plan below), but the quantities remain relatively small and large cemetery sites of hundreds of burials undoubtedly lie waiting to be discovered. Any new discovery of human remains around the Colonia is therefore of immense interest in adding to our understanding of burial locations and practices, and understanding more about the composition and health of the population. Two recent discoveries, both excavated by archaeological units in advance of development, promise to do just that.
The first discovery, marked (A) on the plan above, was made on Newland by Pre-Construct Archaeology in June 2016. A group of 23 late Roman inhumations formed the largest single group of burials excavated in the city in modern times. Post-excavation analysis of the associated grave goods (in the form of ceramics and bone combs) will hopefully provide closer dating of individual graves and a chronology for the burial site as a whole, and osteoarchaeological analysis will tell us more about the lives of the individuals.
One burial initially stands out of being of particular interest, as it looks to be a decapitation burial, the head placed to the left side of the lower legs in this instance. Decapitation burials are known across Britain but their frequency varies regionally. In Oxfordshire, for example, they are almost common, and a number are now known around York. They are more unusual in Lincolnshire, however, so the modern scientific excavation of one here is of great interest, and I eagerly await the final report.
The second discovery, marked (B) on the plan, was made during construction of the Sarah Swift building at the University of Lincoln on Brayford Wharf East. Archaeologists from Allen Archaeology unexpectedly came across the inhumations of two infants and the partial skeleton of an adult, and a cremation in an urn.
The infant burials have understandably attracted the most attention (a ‘baby death riddle’ according to the Mirror, in one of the worst written articles seen in quite some time). Infant burials in the Roman world did not follow the same practices as adult burials. Due to high infant mortality (it is estimated that 50% of children did not live to reach 10), the attitude to infants differed to ours. Pliny, for example, recorded a tradition that children did not possess a soul until they were teething. Adult burials were illegal within a town’s boundary, but child burials were not subject to such rules, and a number have been found within Lincoln’s walls, for example during excavations at Lincoln castle in 2013 where two newborns were found in the drainage gully between two buildings. Many infant burials are found underneath buildings, and may have been deliberately placed there as votive burials, protecting the building and its occupants.
These infants, however, were outside the walls, though their relationship with the adults is not currently known. One infant had been carefully placed under a tegula (roof tile), presumably forming a simple tomb and demonstrating a degree of respect and care. The area they were found has produced evidence of buildings from the late 1st century onwards, but no previous burials until now. The relationship between burials and buildings will doubtless be significant, and as with the Newland burials we await the full analysis in due course.
You can read more about Roman infant burials in Lincoln in my other blog post – ‘Decapitation, infanticide, votive deposition and magical protection: infant burials in Roman Britain’.