Ritual, Religion and Ceremony

Temples, Altars and other inscriptions

With the exception of burial which is considered separately, new evidence of religious or ritual activity is limited and largely from military contexts. At Chester Road, Manchester a well-preserved gritstone altar found in a rubbish pit also contained a fine Samian bowl depicting a hunting scene dated c. AD 180. The altar was dedicated by Aelius Victor to the continental mother goddesses of the Cananeftis (north Rhineland) (PCA 2009, 68-72). It is thought that the altar once stood next to the main road to Chester but was later moved. The strip of land beside Chester Road, where shrines, temples and mausolea might be expected, had been badly disturbed by 20th century development.

Late 2nd century altar from excavations at Chester Road, Manchester (courtesy of GMAAS)

At Maryport (C) in 2013-2014 two stone temples, one circular, the other square and of classical style, were investigated and found to be contemporary with several altars originally found in 1870. The temples stood within a cobbled enclosure 50m by over 95m, of which three sides were confirmed. Re-examination in 2011-12 of the findspot of 17 2nd-century altars showed that rather than ritual burial, as first interpreted, the altars were re-used as packing in a series of large post-pits. The pits supported a substantial late Roman (or early post-Roman) timber building. It was suggested the altars were originally free-standing within the cobbled enclosure along with a large structure of which substantial foundations were identified. Under the cobbled surface were Roman ditches, interpreted as part of a temporary camp (Wilson 2016, 304).

At Ravenglass fort (C), fragments of one certain and one possible face-jar with general parallels at York and in north-east England and fragments of a pipeclay figurine may suggest the presence of a shrine in the vicinity (Hunter-Mann 2015).


Burial practices

A number of excavations on cemeteries in the last decade have contributed to the poorly understood subject of burial practices in the region. Recovery of data for burial practices is constrained by acidic soils in the North West which are inimical to bone survival. The chief exceptions are in the limestone regions and certain urban or waterlogged contexts where particular soil conditions enable bone to be preserved.

With a few significant exceptions, notably Brougham (C) (Cool 2004) and Low Borrowbridge (C) (Hair and Howard-Davis 1996), where relatively isolated military communities maintained distinctive burial traditions over many decades, the Romano-British cemeteries of North West England have not been extensively investigated or published. The extra-mural cemeteries at Carlisle and Chester have been re-evaluated in the light of new discoveries. A significant addition is the synthesis of information on Lancaster’s cemeteries (Iles and Shotter 2009). Here the publication of research into both historical and more recent discoveries of Roman (and Bronze Age) cremations, has attempted to disentangle the incomplete 19th-century reports of cremations, maps the findspots, assesses the surviving evidence, including antiquarian accounts and unpublished notes, , and reports on recent finds.

A number of features of Lancaster’s cemeteries are found elsewhere in northern England. The use of single urns, often in a black-burnished ware jar, for cremation burials, with any additional vessels apparently deposited on the pyre, appears to be a feature characteristic of burials in the Roman north. Unurned cremations often have only token deposits of cremated human bone rather than the whole collection. Occasional hobnails are present but other furniture is rare.

At the Arla Foods Depot, Lancaster, a rectangular enclosure had been laid out in late 1st or early 2nd century along the Roman road south of Lancaster. Although used for cremation burial, rectilinear enclosures along roads out of forts are known from Carlisle and elsewhere. The partition of the landscape near the fort may have been intended originally for agricultural or pastoral use, but their changing function may have been response to varying pressures on land in the vicinity (UMAU 2007).

Cremation cemeteries have been investigated at several Cumbrian sites. That at Beckfoot (C), c. 350m to the south-west of the auxiliary fort and in the proximity of Milefortlet 15, was subject to trial excavation in 2006 by Oxford Archaeology North in advance of increasing coastal erosion. Three phases of burials were found, from the late 1st/early 2nd to 4th century (Howard-Davis et al. forthcoming 2017). Beckfoot had previously produced unusual evidence of busta, pyre sites, in one case with military equipment and a funeral bed (Caruana 2004). A previously unrecorded cremation cemetery was identified on a flat-topped hill NE of the line of a possible Roman road at Maryport (C); the pottery associated with the cremations dated to the 3rd century AD (Wilson 2011, 345).

At Birdoswald (C) a cremation cemetery was investigated in 2009 following a major landslip. A series of Hadrianic to late 2nd century cremations includes two busta, box burials and bone veneers. Two probable 5th century inhumation graves were found, which blocked the earlier entrance to the burial enclosure and may be contemporary with the post-granary timber hall inside the fort; however, the bone did not survive (Wilmott 2010).

Part of the Roman cemetery on Botchergate, Carlisle was excavated in advance of development. The early Roman features relate to the military expansion of the area, as they appear to predate the formalised route of Botchergate. After the establishment of the Roman road on Botchergate and the Roman civilian settlement, a formal cemetery was created which was in use in the late 1st-2nd century. A total of 19 cremation pits was recovered with the remains of at least 46 individuals, located within organised burial plots along the street frontage. Of particular significance was the discovery of several cremation urns and a large number of accessory vessels (Jackson 2015).

The cemetery appears to have been relatively short‐lived and the function of the site had completely changed by the early‐mid 2nd century AD. It is likely that this change in emphasis at the site related to the continued expansion of the civilian settlement, and probably represents the establishment of Botchergate as a suburb of the Roman town. This phase of activity was unusual in that it was largely represented by two circular buildings, rather than the usual rectangular strip buildings typical within Roman civilian contexts and noted elsewhere along Botchergate. One of these circular buildings also provided evidence of possible small‐scale industrial activity. Whilst the environmental evidence has ruled out metal working, it does suggest that processes such as dyeing or glass working may have been undertaken within the structure. The final phase of significant Roman activity appears to have occurred during the mid‐late 2nd century and possibly into the 3rd century AD. The transition between this and the preceding phase appears to represent a planned change rather than abandonment and subsequent reoccupation of the area, and probably relates to the continued development of the Botchergate suburb. It is probable that the remains dating to this phase represented strip buildings along the street frontage with back plots and a series of enclosed areas located to the rear. The site appears to have been largely abandoned during, or shortly after the early 3rd century AD, which was marked by the presence of accumulated soils blanketing most of the site, suggesting the area reverted to ‘open fields’ on the periphery of the settlement at this time (Jackson 2015).

In the southern part of the region, little new burial evidence has come to light. However, in Cheshire, three cremation groups excavated beside the road at Stockton Heath, Warrington belonged to a roadside settlement that was also associated with pottery kilns (Dodd 2006). At Kingsley Fields, Nantwich a similar roadside location had produced a small group of three cremation burials (Arrowsmith and Power 2012). A re-consideration of the burial evidence in extra-mural areas of the legionary fortress at Chester has led to re-dating of burials at Infirmary Field (Heke 2012).

A preliminary attempt at synthesis onRoman cremation practices for northern England has been published, based largely on sites at Beckfoot and Herd Hill (C), and two outside the NW region at Lincoln and Malton (Thompson et al. 2016). Focusing on the technology of cremation, the study examined the cremation efficiency and pyre technology of the process through Fourier Transform Infrared-Attenuated Total Reflectance (FTIR-ATR) analysis of the cremated bones. The project concluded that the condition of the cremated bone reflected a consistent Roman military practice in northern England in terms of the pyre technology and in the highly selective retention of the human remains.

Unburnt bone survives poorly in many of the region’s soils so inhumations are under-represented in the Roman cemeteries of the north-west. One exception is the remains of at least 28 individuals from the cave at Doghole Cave, Haverbrack (C), probably Cumbria’s largest assemblage of human bone dating from the Romano-British period. Excavations in the 1950s (Benson and Bland 1963) were followed up by Hannah O’Regan (University of Nottingham) as a result of damage to deposits by caving (Wilkinson et al. 2011). Here, although the human bone survived in the limestone environment, post-deposition disturbance had severely disrupted the burials and none remained in situ. Careful retrieval of the remains through sieving of deposits produced a suite of Roman artefacts, including hobnails, and personal ornaments including glass and gold-in-glass beads, copper-alloy and silver bracelets, typical of later Romano-British inhumation burials elsewhere in Britain. An unusual suite of faunal remains is currently undergoing analysis. The identification of such burial rites in a rural location distant from the nearest forts may point to the settlement of former military personnel and their families in the countryside. Planned isotope analysis may contribute further to a study of origins of the individuals (H. O’Regan pers. comm.).

The potential for the application of stable isotope analysis of human bone to the North West is discussed by Stallibrass (2011, 114-116) but such studies are hampered by the poor preservation of bone in the relatively acidic soils common in the region (Smith et al. 2016, 390-1, fig 12.5). Nevertheless, the technique has been applied to a small number of inhumations, with more planned for the future. A sample from a male inhumation recovered from a bathhouse hypocaust at Papcastle in 2012 demonstrated strontium and oxygen isotope compositions that are compatible with a local Lake District origin with a diet typical for Roman Britain (Evans et al 2014). Stable carbon isotope analysis of an inhumation from Leasowe near Meols (M) found that the individual had a diet in which marine protein played only a very low part (Griffiths et al. 2007, 350-351). Isotope analysis is also planned for a sample of the Dog Hole Cave (C) inhumations (H. O’Regan pers. comm.).


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