Burial

Lauren McIntyre: Investigating the dead – a day at Heritage Burial Services, Oxford Archaeology South

My name is Lauren McIntyre and I’m Project Officer at Heritage Burial Services, Oxford Archaeology South. Following our post on the Day of Archaeology blog last year, we thought it would be great to provide another snapshot showing the kind of work that our team undertake here. I will also be live tweeting my day in the office from the Oxford Archaeology Twitter account – you can follow us at @oatweet to see exactly what we’re up to!

Today is my first day back in the office after working out on site for quite a number of weeks. My first job of the day was to take some bone samples for radiocarbon dating (after catching up with the rest of the team on project updates and answering lots of emails!). Stratigraphic information and dates from spot finds were only able to provide a broad “Roman” date for one of the cremation burials in question. The second burial (an inhumation) was completely undated. Radiocarbon dating will therefore allow us to establish more accurate dates which will help us to contextualise the burials in question. We take approximately 2g of bone for the sample, being sure to identify and weigh the fragment. This information is then recorded on a proxy note, which is put back with the remainder of the skeleton. This is very important, so that it is clear to any future researchers accessing the skeleton (usually after the skeleton has been deposited in a museum) that a sample has been taken, and they can easily see what has been sampled and why.

Cremated bone sample for C14 dating, and proxy note

The rest of my day is spent discussing a variety of upcoming projects, including strategies for excavating an inverted cremation urn recently excavated on one of our sites, as well as starting analysis of the small assemblage from which the C14 samples were taken. The assemblage comprises both cremated bone and unburnt inhumation burials. I start analysis of the cremated material by sorting the bone into identifiable and unidentifiable fragments. Cremated bone deposits can contain large identifiable fragments, although a large proportion are often unidentifiable. Once fragments are sorted, they are weighed and examined for evidence of age, sex and pathology. This helps us to determine how many people are represented, and potentially gives us demographic and health information. We also record the level and pattern of fragmentation, as well as the colour of the bone, and degree of shrinkage: this information can tell us a lot about the cremation process, which is known to vary between different time periods.

Sorting cremated bone into identifiable skeletal elements

Helen, the second member of our team, is spending today writing up one of our larger assemblages, a post-medieval hospital assemblage from Oxfordshire. The skeletons in this assemblage have substantial quantities of pathological lesions, and have produced some very interesting case studies!

Helen, PO at HBS

Adolescent male skeleton with peri-mortem fractures of the cranium and left ribs

Transfemoral leg amputation with peri-mortem tibial fracture

So far today Helen has been looking at the fracture patterns from a single skeleton, trying to establish whether these injuries may have been caused by a single traumatic event, or whether they were accumulated over time. The skeleton potentially has ribs that have been dislocated where they meet the vertebrae, as well as ante mortem fractures to the sternum, ribs, scapula, arm and wrist. As well as this she has been looking at fracture patterns across groups of skeletons – one group contains several male skeletons which all exhibit fractures to the wrist, first metacarpal (base of the thumb) and nasal bones. One possibility is that these people were all partaking in activities such as boxing or bare knuckle fighting, a fairly popular activity in late 18th century towns.

Louise, Head of the Heritage Burial Services team, is busy today scoping out a desk based assessment of a disused post-medieval burial ground. She is exploring the number, date range and extent of burials present at the site in question. A desk based assessment of a known burial site would primarily involve a headstone survey and visits to the church and local records office to examine burial registers and plans. The results of the research would then assist with plans for future development of the site.

Louise Loe, Head of HBS, working hard as always!

Yet again, you can see that the work we are undertaking here is very diverse. Whether we are sorting and quantifying cremated bone fragments or analysing data to look for patterns of health and activity, everything we do helps to build a picture of how people lived and died in the past.

All photographs within this post are copyright of Oxford Archaeology.

Lauren McIntyre is a Project Officer at Oxford Archaeology’s South office in Oxford, in our Heritage Burial Services. For more information about Oxford Archaeology and our specialist burial services, visit our website: http://oxfordarchaeology.com/professional-services/specialist-services/7-top-level-pages/14-burials-archaeology

Digging Diaries – The House As Old As Stonehenge

Following on from the wonders of Star Carr, here’s our next video, ‘The House As Old As Stonehenge’

A digging team has uncovered the remains of a building which is over 4000 years old. It’s been found on the vast Neolithic landscape of Marden Henge situated within the Vale of Pewsey, Wiltshire.

The University of Reading Archaeology Department have been carrying out the excavations in collaboration with Historic England, the Arts & Humanities Research Council and the Wiltshire Museum.

Subscribe to our channel and follow us on Twitter (@DiggingDiaries) to keep up to date with all  the new exciting digs and dives happening all over Britain this summer.

Happy Digging from all the team!

The power of making – or what it means to do archaeology through creative experimentation with media

I’m oodles of days overdue in contributing to the annual Day of Archaeology (11 July 2014). The delay relates in part to what I’ll discuss below – The Heritage Jam – and in part to the fact that I’m simultaneously prepping to leave for fieldwork at Çatalhöyük on Sunday, finishing multiple articles and reports, and preparing for the adventure that will be the next five months of my life, wherein I’ll be abroad for my sabbatical (more on that another time!). But being late in writing this post has given me a bit of time to reflect—and most importantly, to collate reports from others—on the event that consumed my Day of Archaeology, not to mention all of the days leading up to it, and all of the days immediately after.

On 11 July 2014, supported by the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, and the Centre for Digital Heritage, we hosted the first ever international Heritage Jam. The Jam was a variation on the jamming sessions common in the gaming industry, where adhoc groups congregate for intensive periods of time to produce game prototypes. But instead of games, we were keen to put a spotlight on the many different media that comprise the portfolio of heritage interpretation – from illustration and art to moving-imagery and animation to photography and design to sound and tactile interventions. And instead of live in-person sessions only, we were keen to open up participation to both remote and local registrants, weaving together the online and offline worlds.

The Heritage Jam

Flo Laino and Julie Rugg discuss the York Cemetery, gathering resources for the Heritage Jam. Photo by Colleen Morgan.

The Heritage Jam ultimately coalesced into a multi-part project, all of which is documented on our website, blog, Twitter and Facebook pages. The goal was for individuals or groups to create some kind of visual output (whose process of creation was also documented in a paradata paper) for upload to our online gallery and for physical display at the University of York. The entries were judged on a series of assessment criteria, and had to attend, in some fashion, to the theme of burial (literal or metaphorical, of humans or non-humans). For in-person contributors, we decided to focus the Jam Day efforts on a particular case study site—the York Cemetery—which was necessary to provide some focus to what was an otherwise vague directive (i.e., “work with an assigned group to make new interpretative materials”). And our team created a series of multi-media resources to support understanding of that site, including videos, photos and compilations of archival records.

By my reckoning, the day was a success, attested to not only by the phenomenal outputs submitted by an incredible range of contributors, but also by the feedback we’ve received from those involved and those who’ve viewed the gallery, some of whom have documented the constructiveness of the approach & its outputs on their personal blogs & Day of Archaeology posts (see links below). Coupled with a specific social media use/evaluation plan that we’ve designed for the Jam, we’re analysing experiences and engagement with the project for a larger report that we’ll file at the end of the month. But the superficial numbers (which will soon be blended with qualitative data to provide a rich, contextualised understanding of participation) indicate that we had 92 registrants from most continents of the world, 17 official entries submitted by 37 contributors, 249 Twitter followers & 161 tweets, and 474 Facebook followers from more than 40 countries, speaking more than 30 languages, with a total reach of posts to over 6600 people. Given that we only launched the project in May, we’re pleased with the visibility it’s received—but more so with the quality of the entries, which are truly fantastic.

You only need to browse the entries in the gallery to see the remarkable talent that infuses the tiny proportion of the heritage sector that registered for the Jam. This is important, because there is ample evidence that creative experts working in the heritage sector are undervalued, underpaid, underestimated and often undermined. Part of the intent of the Jam was to expose the depth and breadth of expertise amongst the professional community, and the possibilities that come with actually investing in such expertise. My colleague Anthony has worked to summarise each contribution, and others have gone further, with the brilliant Archaeogaming blog (a forum for exploring video games as they intersect with archaeology) reviewing in detail the winner of the Remote Team Heritage Jam category – Tara Copplestone and Luke Botham’s Buried: An Ergodic Literature Game. Buried (created with the open-source, nonlinear, interactive storytelling tool Twine) is ingenious, thoughtful, fun and sensitive, and I encourage everyone to give it a try. As Archaeogaming’s Andrew Reinhard writes, “Buried is both a game and not a game. It is a playable book, and one with exceptional replay value. Archaeologists and archaeology are both portrayed realistically, and at the same time are neither boring nor sterile, proof that archaeology can stand on its own without resorting to gimmicks or stereotypes…Buried is playful, but also provides plenty to discuss regarding what is a game, and how our personal experiences are brought to bear on choices made within this kind of media, and on this story specifically.”

Equally astounding is the winning entry for the In-Person Group Heritage Jam category: Stuart Eve, Kerrie Hoffman, Colleen Morgan, Alexis Pantos and Sam Kinchin-Smith’s Voices Recognition. As Morgan summarises it on her and Eve’s joint Day of Archaeology post about the work, it was an effort “to create a cacophony in a cemetery — geolocated stories emanating from graves that would increase in intensity with the density of burials in different areas.” In true collaborative fashion, it drew upon previous experimental efforts by the great Shawn Graham in partnership with Eve, which Graham describes in evocative fashion: “I want to develop an app that makes it difficult to move through…historically ‘thick’ places…with a lot of noise when you are in a place that is historically dense with information. I want to ‘visualize’ history, but not bother with the usual ‘augmented reality’ malarky where we hold up a screen in front of our face. I want to hear the thickness, the discords, of history. I want to be arrested by the noise, and to stop still in my tracks, be forced to take my headphones off, and to really pay attention to my surroundings.”

This is exactly what Voices Recognition achieves in its prototype form, put together after a 30 minute trip to the York Cemetery and about 10 hours of intensive group work in a classroom at the university.

I have to admit that when the group presented their output at the end of the day, I was truly awestruck, so much so that it rendered me quite emotional. For it was a glimpse into what great things can be accomplished when you’re able to nurture the right context: an incredible idea (tested out previously with Graham) comes together with an incredible team of people (some of whom were strangers to one another), all converging here into something with a real and profound power to resonate. As I said to Morgan after the event, it was inspirational – and it really was; it made you want to learn how to do such work; it made you want to use the app; it made you want to join their team, and create with them, and be energised and motivated by their ideas, and to experience the cemetery through this lens that they invented right there, in the moment, on the Day of Archaeology.

These entries are just two of 17 that deserve your attention and perusal, so please browse through the gallery, and add your comments to the site or to our Twitter or Facebook feeds. There are contributions from around the world, articulated via a plethora of media, submitted by both new and established practitioners.

The Heritage Jam

Touring the York Cemetery for the Heritage Jam. Photo by Colleen Morgan

I won’t pretend that all the comments we got about the Jam were positive (although the vast majority were), nor that there’s no room for improvement. It was a massive amount of work; it depended on a team of 11 organisers; it required openness to creating things quickly, which means making mistakes and wrestling with practicalities and exposing one’s process, and hence one’s potential vulnerabilities and weaknesses; it demanded doing just as must as intellectualising, which can be problematic given how theoretical much extant ‘archaeological representation’ discourse is; and the in-person event hinged upon teamwork, which as any educator will tell you, can go horribly wrong—but, in the best cases, can equally blow you away in admiration.

In our effort to provide some definition to the exercise of heritage jamming, we did consciously choose to focus on a particular site – the York Cemetery – and this caused some concern around why we were privileging that environment. But archaeology has these tangible dimensions to it, and as much as we wanted to leave the Jam brief entirely open, we also wanted to create a project that knitted the material and the immaterial, the online and the offline, the tangible and the intangible, the process of abstract thinking with the real-world, concrete act of making.

To have eliminated the cemetery would have returned the event to the intellectual exercise that the subject of ‘visualisation in archaeology’ has long been. Moreover, to have deprived Jammers of the opportunity to visit the cemetery would have meant depriving them of a series of experiences—from the reflectivity that’s encouraged through walking, to the camaraderie and knowledge that are built through shared embodied engagements with a physical landscape. In her blog post about the Jam, Holly Wright of the Archaeology Data Service, speaks about of the nature of the cemetery, a breathtaking and deeply reverberating space which is barely known in the York community (despite the fact that it houses the history of much of that community). There is value cultivated for heritage spaces through both our analogue and digital—and our physical and intellectual—engagements with them. The cemetery provided us with a site to experiment with the weaving together of it all.

I’m proud of what we achieved through the Heritage Jam and I would encourage others to consider this format for their own work, particularly if you’re directing the outputs into larger, targeted, useable resources. The fleeting composition of the Jam belies a venture with a longevity to it that extends beyond the Day of Archaeology, so I hope you’ll keep your eyes on the project to see how it develops from here.

The Heritage Jam

Heritage Jamming at the University of York. Photo by Colleen Morgan, www.heritagejam.org


This rains got us bored to death, hope it doesn’t get in my tent, boy I wish that I’d brought proper boots! (What else is there to do on rain day then change the lyrics to Mulan!)

Here at Oakington dig everyone has a different role to play in order to make sure the research is completed on time; and Friday was like any other day on site, well with a bit more rain and more post-work drinks!

Trench three and the effects of the rain!

Trench three and the effects of the rain!

The weather in the morning had taken a turn for the worse, which meant that our students were huddled in the marquee focusing on finds washing and completing any outstanding paperwork, not the most fun job in the world by any means, but not one that is solely for students. Our site director Duncan also took the opportunity to get up to date with his marking, feedback and number crunching.

Tommy hard at work on his context sheets

Tommy hard at work on his context sheets

Site Director Duncan doing some admin!

Site Director Duncan doing some admin!

The rain couldn’t keep us down for long though and by the afternoon we were back on site making the most of softer soils and clearer color divisions of our features; something which not only makes planning easier but also lifts spirits. Below you can see Tommy taking advantage of this by taking measurements for the master plan of trench three, and our students enjoying some unexpected sunshine and working hard.

Tommy taking measurements for the master plan of trench 3!

Tommy taking measurements for the master plan of trench 3!

 

The sun has got his hat on!

The sun has got his hat on!

The 11th was also the final Friday of the project, as this year sees UCLAN, MMU and OAE’s five year collaboratory research project come to an end. The local village put on a farewell party for staff and students, which offered the people of the village and nearby areas come and celebrate the projects successes and ask any questions they may want to. Much drinking, dancing, and partying was had by all who came and it was certainly a lovely way to begin drawing the excavation season to a close, and say a fond goodbye to a village that has shown us such kindness, support and enthusiasm.

7

-Bones without Barriers

 

 

 

 

 

A Third Day In The Life (Of An Archaeological Geophysicist)

Wow, time has flown. This time last year, I was doing radar work in Ballarat on gold mine sludge. But that’s more geological than archaeological, and it should have been covered in last year’s non-existent post (what happened last year, admins??), so I won’t discuss that further.

Let’s see… what was I doing this year?

Ah, yes. Friday. It was the last day of an eight-day project using ground-penetrating radar to search for unmarked graves in a cemetery. The day didn’t really involve any geophysical surveying as such – all that had been done over the preceding week. Instead, Friday was spent using one of my new toys – a Topcon Power Station robotic total station. I love it. It has reflectorless mode so I don’t have to walk around the cemetery to map things. Set-up is a breeze with re-sections (I was previously using a 25-year old reflector-only total station that required two operators and couldn’t do re-sections).

Can you tell from my passion for a robotic total station that I don’t have a romantic partner?

Anyway, I don’t want to sound like a Topcon salesman, so I shall move on.

Basically, what I did that day was map the headstones that were present in the cemetery. That took me from 7am until about 1pm.

It’s one thing to have a geophysical survey performed, but you really need to have a map of the surrounding “stuff” so you know exactly where the geophysical survey was performed (and, hence, where all the unmarked graves are located). If you don’t do this, you’re just wasting time (and the client’s money).

Once I collected all the points needed to create the site map, I packed up, headed to my motel room and entered all the data into GIS (I use Global Mapper. It’s far easier and better than anything else. Yes, including ArcGIS. Deal with it. 😛 ). Then I spent the afternoon colour-coding the different points and lines and shapes and what-have-you. Little trees to indicate trees. Dark grey areas to indicate marked graves. Light grey areas to indicate concrete slabs for the lawn section. A crossed orange line to indicate the cemetery boundary fence. You get the idea. Make the map look pretty. Then whack a north arrow, scale and legend on it and Robert is your mother’s brother. And then the clock hit 5pm and it was time to sleep. (This week involved working from 6.30am until about 7pm each day. So I was overjoyed to see the bed Friday night).

So that was the excitement for my Day of Archaeology.Until next time, live long and prosper.Dave The Grave HunterPS: Sorry for the lack of photos. Here are some on my Facebook business page.

And all the other bits!

As we work closely with archaeological planners and advisors, particularly the English Heritage Greater London Archaeological Advisors in London, the scope of all of our fieldwork and post-excavation strategies follow nationally agreed strategies, we have a really structured process that guides us through the excavation and analysis works. So my specialist osteological analysis and reporting will tie in to specific research questions generated for each site. On large projects like our post-medieval cemetery excavation in Bethnal Green, I will also engage with other specialists, particularly our small finds specialist, Helen MacQuarrie, who will be looking at the coins, dress accessories such as hair combs and buttons that we found with the burials, and our dendrochronologist Anne Crone, who

An adult skull which we found with a coin in each eye orbit for the symbolic payment for transport into the afterlife. Copyright AOC Archaeology

Variation in coffin decoration from post-medieval burials excavated from Bethnal Green, London. Copyright AOC Archaeology

has been working to identifying the species that were used for the manufacture of wooden gravemarkers, which we also found at the site. Anne is also blogging about her day today – worth having a look. And I’ve uploaded a picture of one particularly interesting burial we found with a coin placed in each eye orbit as a symbolic payment for transport into the afterlife.

As an osteologist, I also look into the variation in funerary practices that were adopted in the past. The Bethnal Green burials were interred in wooden coffins, mostly covered with an outer textile that tends not to survive very well. The textile was held in place by upholstery pins and the coffin makers placed the pins in a range of patterns to add a bit of variation to the design of the coffin. Additional metal decorations were added, including angels and urns with flowers as well as sun-rays and rosettes. It’s interesting to see if the construction and decoration of the coffin varied, either between the sexes or by age or showed any variation across different sites.  So after recording each skeleton, I’ll catalogue the coffin size and decoration from site records and photographs and hopefully quantify the changes. You can see the variation in the coffin decorations in the site photo and this is generating a mass of data that will hopefully provide some really interesting results. Some of the burials had surviving coffin plates, which tell us the name and date of death of the individual. We can try and identify these individuals in the surviving parish records such as birth, marriage and death records, the census records, parish rate books and in wills, to try and broaden what we know about their lives. At the end of the analysis, we will bring together all of the research and evidence in a site-specific monograph, so the results will be fully accessible in the public domain together with the archived finds, which will be deposited at the LAARC.

Osteology at AOC Archaeology Group

I’m very lucky to have a job that I absolutely love doing. My role is to excavate and analyse the human remains that we find across our archaeological sites. It can be a diverse role – last week I looked at an Early Bronze Age adult cremation burial, next week I’ll be looking at some medieval burials found underneath a chapel floor. But today I’m studying one of my favourite groups – post-medieval burials fromLondon! The bone surface preservation is usually really good in post-medieval burials, which means we can see a great range of things on the skeleton, whether it’s a slight developmental anomaly or a more severe pathological change.

The skeletons I’m looking at are from a former burial ground dating from 1840 to 1855 from Bethnal Green. The ground was privately owned by a pawnbroker – he clearly saw an opportunity to make some money from the high mortality rates in the parish and surrounding area! We excavated the burial ground over six extremely muddy months last year, prior to the building of a new nursery school on the site. As you can see in the site photo, we’ll uncover and clean the coffins before recording and photographing them. We recovered just over 1000 burials; some of the graveshafts contained up to 54 burials and were up to 7.5m deep.

When back in the office, having cleaned the skeletons, I’ll start by laying out all of the remains and then producing an inventory of which bones are present or missing. Post-medieval burials w

Excavating and recording post-medieval burials from Bethnal Green, London. Copyright AOC Archaeology Group.

ere often placed in vertical stacks in graveshafts, which sometimes collapse over time. So I’ll look for any possible mixing between the bones (if I have three skulls for one burial there’s a problem!) and I’ll check the site records, which will indicate if a coffin was damaged or had collapsed. I’ll then assess the bone preservation and estimate the age and sex of the individual as well as taking a host of measurements – for this site I’m particularly interested in seeing how well the juveniles were growing compared to other groups or compared to modern studies.

The best bit of the job, for me, is to determine how healthy individuals were in the past. I’m a true geek and I’m fascinated by how the skeleton can respond to disease processes and how, by recognising and recording those changes, we can help to reconstruct a bit more about what life was like in the past. I admire fieldwork archaeologists – how they can look at a hole in the ground and work out what activity had taken place on the site – but I love that my work has a more personal aspect by looking at the evidence from the people themselves. It’s a very emotive subject, but hopefully by trying to ascertain as much as about them as possible, as carefully as possible, we are gauging a respectful and fascinating insight into their past lives.

Right – ready for the first skeleton of the day. I’ll complete a paper-based record for each skeleton, which forms part of the site records that are archived with the relevant museum when the project is finished, in this case the London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre, so if anyone needs any further information they can directly access the records. We also have a specific osteology database for generating our report data, which can get big depending on how many pathologies there are on a skeleton or how long-winded I’m being. I’ll update the blog later on to show you what I’ve found. I can already see traces of a nice cranial infection on this individual!

Human Remain Detection Dogs Help to Identify Unmarked Graves in an African American Cemetery

Since its creation, the  Florida Public Archaeology Network’s North Central Region office, located in Tallahassee, has worked hard to assist local organizations that are working on various preservation projects in the region. The most recent of which involves a historic African American cemetery located in Tallahassee, Florida. The Munree Cemetery, as it is known, was established in the late 1800s to early 1900s. It is associated with the Welaunee and Monreif plantations of Tallahassee. The cemetery contains at least 250 burials, the majority of which are unmarked. Since 2009 a group of concerned citizens have been working with county and city officials to protect and preserve this historic site. The citizens established a non-profit organization, The Munree Cemetery Foundation, Inc. as part of this effort. In early 2012 this group contacted the Southeast Archaeological Center asking if there were any archaeologists that would be interested in assisting them. The Southeast Archaeological Center contacted the North Central FPAN office. Since that time the Southeast Archaeological Center and the North Central FPAN office have partnered with the local citizens to work on having the cemetery properly documented. This opportunity is being used to create awareness within the community of the importance of historic cemeteries and how to properly maintain and protect them. After all, cemeteries are a non-renewable resource – once they are gone, they are gone for ever! And when a cemetery is abandoned and disappears over time, the priceless information that cemetery provides to archaeologists and historians is lost forever as well. Burials are not only a reflection of those buried there, but also of the community and the cultural practices of those that were present at the internment of those buried.

On June 29th and June 30th  a team of archaeologists from both organizations and volunteers from the Munree Cemetery Foundation, Inc. will take two days to document the cemetery and conduct some much needed maintenance. The Southeast Archaeological Center is generously providing use of their GPR equipment to assist with this effort. On June 30th the volunteers and local citizens will have the opportunity to get some hands on experience using the GPR. The group will also take this opportunity to learn how to safely and properly clean cemetery monuments using D-2 Biological Solution and learn how to document sites using the Florida Master Site File cemetery form. In addition to using these more common methods of cemetery documentation, a unique opportunity has been presented. On June 29th, which happens to be the 2012 Day of Archaeology, we will utilize specially trained Human Remains Detection (HRD) canines to help identify unmarked burials. After several months of planning, three dog handlers and their specially trained dogs will be assisting in identifying the boundaries of this cemetery and will also help to identify the locations of unmarked graves. This information will be compared with the results of the GPR survey. The public is  invited out to the cemetery while the dogs and archaeologists are conducting their survey. Of course, we all will take time to answer questions and educate visitors about the importance of protecting historic cemeteries.

Tomorrow we will post another blog about this project! We will also be live tweeting, look for the hash tags #Munree and #Dayofarch!

 

Dis Manibus Sacrum…

Lloyd Bosworth: Archaeology Technician, Classical and Archaeological Studies, University of Kent, Canterbury, UK.

My day started like any other day for me. Wake up at 7:30am (ish), make a coffee, put the Today programme on the radio and shamble about the house until the caffeine kicks in. The morning is also when I catch up with the US archaeology blogs that I follow.

Arrival at Work

First order of business is to turn on my workstation and, while that wakes up, make another cup of coffee.

I check my emails.

I’m waiting for a reply from English Heritage to my request for a license to carry out a geophysical survey at Bigbury Camp Iron Age hillfort, near Canterbury. It seems like I’ve been waiting ages for a reply, but it’s really only been two weeks.

This being Friday, my whole day is set aside for working on Professor Ray Laurence and Dr. Francesco Trifilò’s Leverhulme Trust funded research project on age across the Roman Empire.

A Little Background for the Uninitiated

Because Roman law forbade burial within settlements, the roads leading to and from Roman cities were lined with tombs and cemeteries. What may strike us as unusual, or at least unusual to our understanding of modern burial practices, is that the deceased’s age at death was not always recorded on their memorial. This is not to say that this practice was rare, just far from standard across the Empire.

What Ray and Francesco are doing is looking at the ages recorded on memorials and picking up patterns in the overall distribution of the range of chronological age at specific archaeological sites.

My Part In This

This research has produced a unique database containing around 24,000 entries. That’s 24,000 individual burials from across the Roman Empire; each entry recording many different pieces of information about the deceased, including their name, age, memorial inscription, and, in many cases, their social status, too. But this is not the only information recorded, as there is often the same detailed information about the person who erected the memorial.

My part in this is to prepare the database for analysis within GIS (Geographic Information System) software, which can be used to plot density and distribution patterns in the data and display this visually over a map of the Roman Empire.

The database as it stands isn’t suitable for using within GIS, because each entry represents an individual. To be able to plot density based on ages, I’ve been combining entries that share the same age and sex. For example, if there are ten entries from Carthage for females aged 9, it will become one entry for females aged 9 from Carthage, with a total count of ten.

Once the database has been prepared, it’ll be time to start querying the data and plotting density maps to see what the data says about chronological age across the Roman Empire.

While I’ve been working on the database, I’ve also created a website that will host the GIS and tabular data. The GIS server will be able to draw maps based on a user’s query, so that anyone can view the patterns in the data for themselves.

What Does the Data Show

Well, there’s not much I can say about the findings of the study, because, one, it isn’t finished yet, and two, I can’t just spill the beans about it. What I can say, however, is that age data from memorials is not a credible demographic tool. The declaration of age on the memorials appears to conform to the set of key ages which were considered of crucial importance to Roman society. A contemporary example could be the age of retirement as an indicator of the beginning of old age, or the age of 21 as a common indicator of a person’s entry into the world of adulthood.

Children are also poorly represented in the data. But, within this under-representation, there are greater and smaller numbers which may mean something. Roman Law explicitly stated that a child under three years was not permitted a proper funeral, (although simply having a tombstone didn’t necessarily mean that you had had a proper funeral, either). This may sound harsh to us, but, as infant mortality was much higher than it is today, they would have been more used to child death, and so there would be a certain desensitisation over an event that today would be horrific to experience. However, before we condemn Roman parents as monsters, there is a peak in the data for the age of three, which could be showing instances in which the parents lied about the child’s age in order to provide a proper funeral

Final Thoughts

So, working my way through data on 24,000 burials may be quite repetitive and a little morbid, but this kind of information is the bread and butter of archaeology. The repetition does allow time for an inevitable reflection upon life and death, though. I doubt there is an archaeologist who isn’t moved to these same reflections when dealing with data derived from burials. When data like this are analysed, what gets thrown out the other end are impersonal numbers; the reduction of 24,000 lives to a single statistic can’t really get much more impersonal!

But I think it’s impossible to forget that these were real people, as I think this one, randomly selected inscription shows:

[quote style=”boxed”]To the spirits of the dead. Lucius Annius Festus [set this up] for the most saintly Cominia Tyche, his most chaste and loving wife, who lived 27 years, 11 months, and 28 days, and also for himself and for his descendants.[/quote]

Is this really any different to what you’d find on a gravestone today? Lucius was obviously devoted to his wife, and he must have grieved at her passing. You or I would feel no different.

There’s still much work to be done, so I’ll finish this here. Thanks for reading!

A note on the title of this entry:

The phrase ‘Dis Manibus Sacrum’, (often shortened to D.M.S.), is found on many Roman graves. The Manes, to which it refers, were the spirits of the dead, so it can be translated as “Sacred to the Spirit-Gods” or, more loosely, “To The Memory Of…”.