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Birdoswald Cemetery Excavation

Excavation at Birdoswald Fort investigated part of a Roman cemetery. New scientific analysis is providing details of grave goods and funerary practice, and will inform a new display at the visitor centre.

Excavation of the cemetery

The Roman military cemetery of the Hadrian's Wall fort at Birdoswald lies on the edge of a cliff overlooking the River Irthing. Part of the cemetery was excavated in 2009 before its likely loss through river erosion.

The cemetery was discovered in the 1950s when ploughing disturbed several intact cremation vessels and the tombstone of a third century legionary soldier, C Cossurtius Saturninus. In 1999 Time Team found several more cremation vessels. Our work is the only large scale investigation of any military cemetery on Hadrian’s Wall. A summary of the excavation can be found in Research News Issue 14.

The excavation revealed a roadway leading to the site, through the vicus from the fort. To one side of the road was a ditched enclosure containing a large number of cremation deposits. These varied enormously in composition. Most were simple pits containing charcoal and burnt bone. Some pits were stone lined, in one case the cremated remains had been contained in a nailed wooden box, and there were a small number of urned burials. The most elaborate burial was a ditched cist containing a single cremation vessel. All vessels date to the mid – late 2nd century.

Photograph of two cremation urns inside their pits that have been exposed in section during excavation
Two cremation urns during the excavation of Birdoswald Roman cemetery. Damage caused by ploughing is especially visible on the vessel on the left, where the rim is missing © Historic England

The urn conservation project for a new visitor centre

The Historic England Excavation and Analysis Team are conserving five of the Roman cremation urns for a new display at the Birdoswald Roman Fort visitor centre. The five urns selected range in size and decoration. They were originally block-lifted and then excavated in the conservation laboratory following fieldwork. Most urns were damaged while buried by extensive ploughing on site and the weight of the overlying soil. The Archaeological Conservation Team will now surface clean the individual sherds and then re-assemble the urns.

Side and plan view photographs with the corresponding X-radiograph of a the cremation urns
One of the Birdoswald cremation urns seen in side and plan view, with the corresponding X-radiograph underneath. The X-rays show cremated bone but also metallic small finds at the base of the urn. © Historic England

One urn stood out from the others in that it contained a multitude of artefacts including iron chain mail and copper alloy artefacts. Full investigation will form part of this project to inform the display. Another urn had a possible lead repair.

Alongside making the urns and finds fit and stable for display, the biological remains from within the urns and their pits will also be analysed by the Environmental Studies Team. We already know that each urn contained charcoal and cremated human remains, and are examining their fills for archaeobotanical and zooarchaeological remains, and small artefacts.

The results of this project will be published in a report and inform the new display.

Photograph of Angela Middleton

Angela Middleton

Archaeological Conservator

Angela Middleton has been working as an Archaeological Conservator for Historic England since 2007. Here she is responsible for advice, research and investigative conservation on material retrieved from land and marine sites. She has a special interest in the conservation of waterlogged organic materials, such as wood and leather.

 

Photograph of Senior Archaeologist Tony Wilmott

Tony Wilmott

Senior Archaeologist

Tony Wilmott is a Senior Archaeologist with Historic England. He is a specialist on the Roman and early Medieval periods. He has directed many excavations on Roman sites on Hadrian’s Wall, including on several milecastles, the linear elements of the frontier complex, and the temples of Maryport.  He directed excavations at  the fort of Birdoswald from 1987-92, in 1996, 1999-2000 and finally the work on the cemetery in 2010.

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