Death and Burial

When the Romans came to Carlisle in the winter of 72/73 CE (AD) they brought many customs with them, including those connected with the disposal of the dead. One of these was cremation, which involved burning a body on a pyre (a platform made of wood that was then set alight), collecting at least some of the remains and burying them. Personal items are often found in the grave, while a marker showed its location. By the time the Roman occupation was coming to an end, around 400 years later, their burial customs had changed. Bodies were now buried whole (inhumation). This may have been because of the rise of Christianity with its belief that there would be a bodily resurrection, or it may have been a change in fashion.

For religious and public health reasons, it was illegal to bury the dead in populated areas. Cemeteries, therefore, were located outside Roman settlements. It became popular for people, particularly the wealthy, to bury their dead along the main roads into towns and cities. In Carlisle, early 20th century development uncovered examples of this. The cemetery we know most about was located along the main road leading to the south, which followed a similar line to the present day Bothchergate and London Road. The red dots on the air photograph mark the positions of the burials that have been discovered so far. [See Image 1]

The Tullie House collections contain items from many of the burials that have been found. For example, an elaborate burial from Woodruffe Terrace, which is just off Botchergate, contained a stone box. This contained a glass bottle full of cremated bones. Other burials found in the same area were simply buried in cooking pots. [See Image 2 and 3]

While gravestones have no written inscription, tombstones contain valuable information about the deceased. This carved gravestone of a woman with a fan was found at Murrell Hill in Carlisle, near the main road leading west out of Carlisle [See Image 4]. The carving is of the highest quality. Above the woman there are two lions eating human heads, which are Roman symbols of death.

This tombstone was for a little girl called Vacia, who was aged 3 when she died. [See Image 5] It was found just outside the Roman city at Spring Gardens Lane, off Lowther Street, on the main route to the east. It shows a girl holding a bunch of grapes, but  the figure looks much older than 3. This shows that the tombstone was bought with the figure ready carved and just had the inscription added. Other examples among the collection of tombstones on display in the museum include Titullinia Pussitta who was 35 when she died and Tancorix who was 60.

This later tombstone of Flavius Antigonus Papias dates from the period when bodies were buried whole [See Image 6]. He describes himself as a citizen of Greece, giving some idea about the multicultural makeup of Roman Carlisle. The form of words used may show he was a Christian. However, as Christianity was a ‘secret’ religion at the time, it is not certain that he was.

Other roman cemeteries that are represented in the Tullie House Collections include Birdoswald, Brougham, Beckfoot and Papcastle. Men, women and children were buried at Brougham but, intriguingly, only men were interred with glass drinking vessels, like the one shown here.  [See Image 7]. The enamel saucepan, also found in a grave at Brougham, was very old when buried showing that the Romans may have valued antiques in the same way as we do today.  [See Image 8].

It is difficult for archaeologists to find out how people died, particularly when they have been cremated, as the majority of Roman ones from this area were.  However, there is one fascinating example found in Carlisle, which was found when The Lanes shopping centre was developed. Archaeologists found a well, at the bottom of which a body was discovered. The excavators immediately suspected foul play, as the body was dumped within the town walls in a place where no one was likely to find him. This suspicion was later confirmed by the discovery of a severe wound to the skull resulting from a blow to the head.  [See Image 9]