Decoding the Roman Dead: A Bit Of Background

15 Jul 2021

By Glynn Davis, Senior Collections and Learning Curator and Lead Curator for the ‘Decoding the Roman Dead’ exhibition

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Decoding the Roman Dead is an exhibition that explores the results of new scientific analysis and archaeological research into Colchester Museums’ Roman cremation burials. The project is a collaboration with the University of Reading and supported by our partners, Durham University and the Colchester Archaeological Trust. Working with archaeologists, osteologists and scientists we have ‘decoded’ the hidden stories of some of Britain’s earliest Romans who were laid to rest almost 2000 years ago.

Here’s a sneak peak of what’s coming up when the exhibition opens on 24 July…

The Faces of the Dead

A running joke amongst the exhibition team is that I’ve become obsessed with ‘Face Pots’. These are unusual ceramic vessels that have a face applied to their body. They are fairly rare from Roman Britain but Colchester must have one of the largest collections. Several additional fragments at the Museum were discovered during our research and more recent examples have been excavated by the Colchester Archaeological Trust. My attraction to these pots is perhaps obvious: a furrowed brow, cheeky grin, or scruffy beard – these facial characteristics instantly personify the pot. One of the main curatorial challenges of the exhibition has been how we connect our audience with cremated remains, how we humanise the individuals represented by burnt fragments of bone. I may have lost the argument for using a face pot for the exhibition marketing, but you’ll soon meet one when you arrive at the exhibition…and then several more!

A creamy coloured ceramic pot with a face in relief on the side. The face has ears, eyebrows, a nose, eyes and a mouth pursed into an 'o' shape
A creamy coloured ceramic pot with a face in relief on the side. The face has ears, eyebrows, a nose, eyes and a mouth pursed into an 'o' shape

Burying the Dead

The idea for the ‘Decoding the Dead’ project really started when I joined the Colchester + Ipswich Museums in 2016. I was amazed to find that many of the Museums’ historical antiquarian cremation vessels still had their cremated remains inside. Having previously worked in a museum department for many years alongside osteologists – specialists in studying excavated human bone – I realised these individuals had untold stories hidden in their bones. The project’s osteologist, Dr. Emily Carroll, has examined 40 cremations selected from over a hundred examples in the stored collections. Her analysis has helped reconstruct the identity and lives of these people: how old they were when they died, what illnesses they lived with, and how they were cremated at their funerals.

A colour photograph of a large, rounded glass vessel with a flat rim. The glass is slightly greenish in colour. To the left of the vessel is a shallow, square shaped clear container full of bone fragments

Burning the Dead

Colchester has one of the richest collections of Roman funerary archaeology from the country. Some objects are incredibly rare, such as lead cremation urns, sometimes called ossuaries. There are perhaps only 50 or so of these vessels recorded from the entirety of Roman Britain (the last study was over 30 years ago) and Colchester is unique in having four examples. All of our lead urns have their original cremations inside, but perhaps more interesting is the state of the bone. The cremated remains in these high-status vessels is particularly well burnt with the colouration, and its consistency, of the bone appearing far whiter than others studied. This reveals evidence of how the body was burnt on the pyre, what fuel was used and how long it was maintained. These new ways of exploring and reconstruction the pyre cremation process is explored in the exhibition.

A colour photograph of three cylindrical shaped, grey coloured containers narrower neck.

Protecting the Dead

I have long-held interest in Roman jet and the exhibition has been a great opportunity to present some of the of amazing jet artefacts the Museum holds in its stores. Jet was a material the Romans believed had magical, protective properties and objects made of jet are often found in late Roman burials. Perhaps some of Colchester’s most ‘famous’ jet artefacts are the miniature jet bears that have been discovered from the burials of infants and young children. These may have been symbolic of a protective mother-goddess. They provide a glimpse into the emotional loss experienced by parents and the efforts they went to protect their children in a life beyond their reach.

A colour photograph of a group of objects made from jet, so they are all black in colour. There is a small bear figurine, three short batons carved with a spiral design, a small and a large bangle and a pot with indented sides and a section missing from the top
A small carved bear made from jet which is black

Journey to the Afterlife

As well as presenting new research a temporary exhibition also allows a re-contextualisation of material that might already be on display. One of the objects my co-curator, Dr. Carolina Lima, was keen on re-displaying in the exhibition is the ‘Gosbecks Mercury’. This statue was discovered at the Roman temple complex of Gosbecks, south of Colchester, and is one of the finest metal sculptures from Roman Britain. Although this statue may have adorned a temple worshipping the god at Gosbecks, we have reimagined him as Mercury Psychopompos. The Romans considered the transition from life to death as a journey and it was the god Mercury, in his role as the psychopomp, who led the deceased safely into the underworld.

A colour photograph of the torso and head of the Colchester Mercury. It is a metal figure of a man with wings proturding from his head. The figure is missing arms

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