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The Romance of a Roman Cemetery

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Heretfordshire - Charles Lamb's "hearty, homely, loving Hertfordshire" - has within its borders many historic buildings and sites. In the history of England this quiet, homely county has played no unimportant part. Briton, Roman, Saxon, Dane and Norman, to mention a few of the more prominent races who have dominated our land through past centuries, have resided within the confines of this county, and wherever one turns evidence is obtained of people of bygone days.

Even if notice is restricted to Roman times, Hertfordshire claims much attention from those who are interested in archaeological matters or historical pursuits.

Third in acreage in Great Britain, Verulamium (St. Albans) was only exceeded in the Roman era by Londinium (London) and Corinium (Cireneester), so that in the very heart of the county there existed in prehistoric days, as well as in the days of the Conquest, an important capital site of great interest. It has been stated that ancient Verulam was larger than Pompeii and of greater magnificence, and although to-day waving fields of grain and stately elm trees guard, as it were, the hidden secrets of Mother Earth, one may conjure up in the mind visions of the mighty past, of Cassivellaunus, Queen Boadicea, Alban, the proto-martyr of Britain, and the rest.

Hertfordshire, too, was traversed by several Roman and pre-Roman roads. The Icknield Way - probably the oldest trackway in Britain - enters the county neai Royston and leaves it near Tring; Watling Street, Stane Street, Ermine Street and others all passed through this Home County. Small wonder, then, that, with an important capital in its midst, its close proximity to London, its trade routes, its water supply, its comparative accessibility to the coast, there should be so many evidences presented to us of Roman times.

A few decaying remnants of flint, tile and rubble walls are still standing near St. Albans and elsewhere in the county, the foundations of a few scattered Roman villas have been excavated, and now there has come to light a Roman cemetery near the old-world town of Baldock, in the north of the county, on the site of which it has been my privilege to undertake some important excavation work. Many Roman cemetery sites have in past times been discovered up and down the country, but their examination has not been conducted in the best way. Objects of great interest - of pottery, bronze, silver, iron, etc. - have been unearthed, but the objects secured have, for the most part, been hopelessly confused and distributed, and no proper systematic work has been undertaken or accomplished.

The site where the Roman cemetery I have been excavating since the spring of 1925 is situated is in the angle of two important bygone roads - the Icknield Way on the north, and the Stane Street, or Roman Way, on the west. It is a large field of some forty acres which has been under cultivation since Saxon times. A few of the Saxon baulks still remain, but the greater number have, unfortunately, been obliterated. The name of the field is Walls Field, and although Roman and other coins in large numbers have been picked up on the surface s for many years past, it was not realized until Easter 1925 that, only a few feet beneath the soil, there lay hidden throughout the ages a wealth of beautiful objects the discovery and recovery of which have created immense interest.

The first indication that the south-east corner of Walls Field, Baldock, was the site of a Roman cemetery of the first to third centuries a.d. was brought about by accident, the deep plough revealing five vessels. One of these, a large urn, contained cremated remains, and when my attention was called to the discovery by the tenant-farmer under the Hertfordshire County Council - Mr. William Hart, of "Homeland" - I was at once impressed with the fact that further exploration would reveal other treasures.

Permission having been readily granted by Mr. Hart and the County Council, work was commenced on a plot of ground measuring 90 by 36 feet, close to where a burial group was turned out by the friendly plough. Workers were few, but after three weeks' labour twenty-three almost perfect burial groups were secured, as well as a few solitary urns, and at least one hundred broken groups. Excavations were continued under my personal supervision the following spring (1926), and in 1927 and 1928, and so successful have our efforts been that, when work was closed down in August 1928, no less than two hundred and fifty-eight burial groups had been obtained. The whole of these are now on exhibition in Letchworth Museum.

During the years 1926-27 and 1928 an area of only 69 by 45 feet was explored, as growing crops restrict operations to a few weeks' work each season, and great care has to be exercised. The work is slow and laborious, but well over one hundred burial groups have been obtained from the further small area of ground mentioned, and it is believed that other discoveries have yet to be made.

Two hundred and twenty-six vessels of pottery and glass were secured in less than five weeks during the spring of 1928. These all belong to burial groups which are now being worked out.

The depths at which the urns and other objects were found varied from twenty inches below the surface to a depth of three to four feet. As a rule, however, the burials were at an average depth of two feet six inches, and whilst in some cases there was much uniformity, some of the groups being placed in distinct rows, others about three feet apart, coffin burials of the late fourth century (after the adoption of Christianity in a.d. 323) had undoubtedly disturbed the cremation groups, and in many instances broken them beyond repair.

In one case a burial group dating from about a.d. 100 was discovered on top of a second group the date of which is a.d. 160-180. The explanation seems to be that the former group was removed to make way for the latter, and when replaced the later group was placed below the earlier one.

In most instances little pits or graves had been dug in the chalk to contain the vessels. In nearly every burial the cremated remains were contained in a large, coarse-ware olla, or cooking pot, all the vessels used being household utensils. Where no cinerary urn was discovered, the burnt bones were placed in the pit with their associated objects, but in one burial a woman's remains were interred in a figured Samian ware bowl made by the potter Sacrillus from a mould of Doeccus. The latter worked near Lezoux in a.d. 120-160, and the former a.d. 160-180. With this Roman lady's remains were found a necklace of forty-five glass beads gilded, a small black beaker and the base of a jug. In a few other burials, where the remains were believed to be those of a female, bronze casket fittings were found, and it is suggested that in these burials the bones were placed in a casket. The idea of these group burials was that food and liquid would be required by the departed during his long and unknown journey across the mythical river Styx.

Only two coins have been found with the burials so far discovered, but one of Domitianus, a.d. 86, was found by me in the mouth of a skull of the late third century. This is interesting, as it is evidence of a Pagan belief still in vogue in Christian times, the idea being that the departed would have his fare in readiness to pay Charon, the boatman, to ferry him across the great river.

But a few solitary urns have been found. These may have been burials of the poorer classes, but associated objects numbering from two to as many as thirteen are contained in the collection. Three to four objects is a fair average for a group, the objects usually consisting of an urn containing the burnt remains, a jug for wine or other liquid, a Samian dish, plate, bowl or cup, or a beaker or drinking cup. Two or three double burials were forthcoming, one probably of husband and wife, one probably of mother and child, and one was a treble cremation, the first being in a large two-handled vessel of stone-colour ware, the second in a Castor ware vase ornamented with two staghounds chasing an antlered deer, and the third cremated remains (with the same group burial) were contained in a decorated New Forest ware vase.

No attempt had been made, except in two or three instances, to cover the vessel containing the remains of the departed, there were no stoppers in any of the food or liquid vessels, and very rarely was anything found inside the cinerary urns except the cremated remnants of the deceased. The exceptions were a few small pottery vessels inside the larger urns, and a bronze stylus for writing on a wax tablet.

Of glass and metal ware little was found. In one re-markable group of seven objects there were, however, three glass decanters, one having two handles, and a second one, exactly twelve inches in height, has the letters M.A.P. very boldly marked in a ring on the base. A much smaller decanter was included in an eight-piece group. None of the objects found in this group have been restored, and they are as perfect to-day as they were when they were deposited in this Roman cemetery eighteen hundred years ago. Only one vessel was badly broken. This was the cinerary urn. These coarse, porous vessels have stood the test of time, weight of soil, action of the elements, and the disturbance of later burials, the worst of all. In many instances these urns where broken beyond repair, and the pottery crumbled at the touch. It was often quite soft and damp.

With two ladies' burials a square, and in another case a round hand mirror were included. The mirrors are of speculum metal and are convex. One's face could be seen in them the moment the mirrors had been rescued from their hiding-places, and they did not require cleaning.

Pottery lamps and socketed iron lamp holders were placed with half a dozen of the burials to light the spirit on its journey, and with one burial a knife was included. Apparently favourite cups, dishes, jugs or other utensils were buried with the deceased. With a woman's grave group there was revealed a rare object in the form of a bronze chatelaine manicure set of supreme interest. It is enamelled in blue, red and yellow, and at the rounded head has an ornate mosaic design. Suspended from a swivel-bar there is a nail cleaner, nail file and a pair of tweezers. Wares of all colours from snow-white to polished jet black are numerous among these burial groups, as well as decorated Castor ware having, in relief, figures of hares and hounds, and there are indented beakers or thumb pots, a unique Samian ware cup with two handles, and a shapely vase of great rarity decorated with ears and blades of corn.

Fortunately, the potter's names are stamped on many of the Samian ware platters, and by this means greater accuracy in dating is made possible.

Most of the vessels were deliberately chipped during the funeral obsequies, presumably as a last offering or tribute to the departed.

It seems clear that at the time this Roman cemetery was in use some indication as to burial must have been made above ground, but all traces of such gravestones, or otherwise, have long since disappeared. There is no mark of any kind, neither mound or tumulus. Neither does the contour of the land provide any indication as to its hidden secrets.

No implements of war or of the chase have thus far presented themselves, simply household utensils and a few toilet and other articles. With the largest burial group of thirteen associated objects two Samian ware plates with handles are included, and also a rare form of carinated vase in imitation of threaded glass. The large black urn is of jet-black Upchurch ware, with panels of raised dots.

With the coffin burials of the late third century objects, other than flat-headed coffin nails, were only found in three instances. The coin of Domitian, already referred to, was one exception, a snake bracelet and a small pedestalled red ware cup were found with the skeleton of a small child, and with the third a fine specimen vase of New Forest ware.

Working in the trenches on this Roman cemetery site from day to day, with skylarks soaring and singing overhead and trim wheatears running nimbly from clod to clod, the romance of bygone times is constantly in mind. The wonderful art of these Roman potters of the first and second centuries; the life, work and play of the people who lived on or near this site some eighteen hundred years ago, and whose remains - and whose remarkable household wares and burial customs - this cemetery site has revealed, all help one to visualise, as never before, something of the cultured civilization which held undisputed sway in Britain until too high an ambition at last destroyed ancient Rome. Her people - perchance some of these Baldock people of old - were recalled to help to fight their country's own battles at home under an Italian sky.

The sighs, the tears, the heartbreaks, the remorse, the sad funeral rites, the last farewells, have all been conjured up in my mind as I have worked diligently in the trenches of Walls Field.

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