ROMAN COLCHESTER

Death the last great mystery.

What happens after we die? Head to Colchester and find out.

Decoding the Roman Dead in the City’s Castle Museum uses scientific research techniques to reconstruct the identity and lives of the people whose remains have been excavated in the town. Osteology has identified where they came from, what illnesses they lived with, and how they were cremated at their funerals.

The Romans bade farewell to their dead with great ceremony. The funeral would have been full of sights, sounds and smells. Musicians would make noise and incense may have been burnt. They would parade death masks of the recently departed. The noise perhaps did not obscure the sound of crying, but often silence can be worse at these times.

Romans tended to burn their dead on pyres. It was a long process and the fire would need to be tended for many hours. 

After cremation, they would gather the ashes and bones and place these in containers- ceramic was cheaper than glass and lead. Inside or next to these, they would place goods: lamps, jewellry, tools. 

Romans built their cemeteries on the outside of settlements. Those who could afford it built splendid memorials, advertising the dead and their achievements to passers by. Although not strictly part of the exhibition, the tombstones of Marcus Favonius Facilis and Longinus are great examples.

Grave goods are important pieces of evidence for archaeologists. From them we can glean so much information about both the rituals to honour the dead but also how a living town worked. 

Important discoveries have been made from the remains of humans, but there are ethical concerns, which are not even touched upon in this exhibition even if these are less acute in this case (compared to situations where Western institutions have taken and retain the remains of indigenous people without permission). I cannot really see what is gained from the public display of human remains within this exhibition, but the other research and other items presents a vital picture of life in the city.

Sir Thomas Browne, a seventeenth century doctor from Norwich, wrote an important essay after the discovery of burial urns. His words stayed with me as I visited this exhibition:

But who knows the fate of his bones, or how often he is to be buried? Who hath the oracle of his ashes, or whither they are to be scattered?

Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial by Sir Thomas Browne

A lesson for us all to be humble in life and in death. 

History of town 

Colchester claims to be Britain’s first City. 

It was founded by the Romans in 43 CE close to the local capital of the Trinovantes, as a powerful statement of intent that was soon overturned by Boudicca during the rebellion of 60 CE. 

The Romans succeeded on the second go, even adding a fortified wall this time, but the mercantile focus quickly moved to London.

Colchester was a major city with an important temple to the Emperor of Cladius at its heart and several other public buildings.

The remains of a circus with stone walls have been found beyond the Roman walls to the south of the City. This alone makes Colchester unique in Britain. We also have several items like cups or glasses, showing the races and gladiatorial contests. A visit to the Roman Circus Visitor Centre is recommended).

A theatre was located close to the Forum. You can view part of it in Maidenburgh Street. 

During its later period, the City was depopulated and although buildings fell into disrepair there was still likely to be substantial masonry standing on the site into the medieval period. The Normans used Roman brickwork to build a castle on top of the foundations of the Temple to Claudius. Because of this, today, no Roman architecture remains above ground, except for part of the Roman Walls and the Balkerne gate.

Careful examination of the outer face of the Castle in the 80s identified a row of vertical ‘bricks’ which turned out to be carefully sheared hypocaust shards. The number of them suggest they were taken from a large public bath house. 

Colchester Castle Museum contains many items from the town including mosaics, ceramics and metal work.

Gods of Colchester

The City was full of gods including Minerva, Mars and Hercules. Like many other British towns, Mercury was particularly venerated. 

A fragment from the central scene from a Mithraeum has been found as well as Christian items. 

Perhaps most excitingly, there are hints that there was a Temple to Isis on what has been called Colchester’s Street of Tombs. The fragment of an over-lifesize female head has been identified as Isis based on the hair and a possible headdress.

Within the vicinity was found the glorious Colchester Sphinx, a statuette of Harpocrates and a statuette of a sphinx. One tomb also contained the remains of falcons, associated with Harpocrates. The evidence is elusive, but the cult was popular across the Roman Empire and we have evidence from other locations in Britain, including London. Ancient history is built on such fragments.

I look forward to seeing more.