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Letter From England: Rescuing an Old Dig Volume 58 Number 3, May/June 2005
by Hilary Cool

Women warriors from beyond the Danube and complex burial rituals are among the unexpected finds at a Roman military cemetery.

[image] The burial of an upper-class Roman male more than 45 years old included ceramic vases, a glass vessel, and joints from animals. (Courtesy Hilary Cool) [LARGER IMAGE]

The existence of a cemetery outside the Roman fort at Brougham, some 20 miles south of the western end of Hadrian's Wall, had long been known from finds of tombstones. So when it was announced that the modern highway that ran through it was to be straightened, excavations were planned. But this was in 1966, a time when archaeological concerns were of little importance to road builders and archaeologists were poorly funded. Work started unexpectedly in early 1967, before it was scheduled to begin, and under very difficult circumstances a small team of government-sponsored excavators saved what they could--digging more than 300 deposits, including cremation burials, the foundations of at least two large monumental tombs, and a number of what they thought were robbed graves. Detailed recording had to be sacrificed for speed, and some burials were destroyed before they could be recorded fully; part of the adjacent settlement was lost because, as one archaeologist noted at the time, "the machines were working vigorously at this stage."

Study of the discoveries began immediately, but the scholar in charge died before finishing her analysis. Incomplete records and lack of funding brought efforts to finish the work in the 1980s to a halt. What was accomplished did, however, reveal the importance of the artifacts--which include Britain's best collection of third-century A.D. glass vessels, an unrivaled group of glossy, bright-red pottery (known as Samian ware), and thousands of burnt scraps from objects placed on funeral pyres.

(University of Leeds) [LARGER IMAGE]
Glass vessels such as this one (left) were buried with adult males at Brougham, while this beaker (right) is a type found with children in the cemetery and came from the burial of a six- or seven-year-old. [image]
(Courtesy Tim Padley and
Tullie House Museum) [LARGER IMAGE]

Our company, Barbican Research Associates, specializes in analyzing old sites, looking at the excavation notebooks, plans, and objects with fresh eyes. We knew from what work had been done that it was important to publish this cemetery, and in 2000, we persuaded the government agency English Heritage to fund a reexamination of all the evidence from the Brougham excavation, including the finds from the site, donated by the landowner to the Tullie House Museum in nearby Carlisle, and the hastily written field notes, some photos from the dig, and various bits of reports that had been written over the years. We felt we could use new information from other cemeteries and advances in techniques of analysis to help us understand the site. In short, archaeological thought and expertise had finally caught up with what had been found at the site in the 1960s.

We never dreamed, however, of the remarkable story that would emerge. While the Roman army has long been thought of as a very masculine institution where women and children were virtually invisible, the evidence from Brougham shows that may be very far from the truth. Women and children--the soldiers' families--buried in the cemetery there were treated with just as much care and attention as the men. And, remarkably, some of the women might have served in the forces guarding Rome's northwest frontier. Archaeology can prove nothing incontrovertibly, but Brougham does open up the possibility that we don't know as much about the Roman army as we thought. It has also shown the value of going back to old digs and studying them afresh.

Hilary Cool is a director of Barbican Research Associates. Barbican's Jerry Evans and Quita Mould studied the artifacts, Jacqueline McKinley from Wessex Archaeology the human remains, and Julie Bond and Fay Worley from the University of Bradford the animal bones. We are grateful to English Heritage for providing the funds to rescue this site. The full report, The Roman Cemetery at Brougham Cumbria, is published by the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies.

© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America