Funerary Inscriptions, Burial and Cemeteries

The Roman presence in York lasted for over 300 years; thousands of Romans were born here during that time, and thousands died here, and were buried or cremated. What do we know about how and where the inhabitants of Eboracum dealt with and disposed of their dead?

Roman law prohibited burials inside inhabited areas, mostly on the grounds of religion and hygiene, but space was also a factor – Roman towns were intensely crowded and there was simply no room for the luxury of an intramural cemetery. Only the imperial family (in the empire) and the Vestal Virgins were exempt. Cremations on funeral pyres would also have posed a serious urban fire hazard.

The sheer importance of this ruling is underlined by the fact that it was one of the twelve laws enshrined in the august and ancient ‘The Law of the Twelve Tables’ (Leges Duodecim Tabularum or Duodecim Tabulae) of about 450 BC – legislation that formed the very foundation of Roman law. Table Ten tells us that a ‘dead person shall not be buried or burnt in the City’.

It was, therefore, usual practice for interments to take place alongside the principal roads into and out of a fortress, outside the walls. Over the centuries, as today’s York was expanding beyond the medieval city walls, we have uncovered much evidence of Roman burials – occasionally as single burials but usually in extensive cemeteries of single and multiple occupation graves. The discoveries have shown us that burial practices varied greatly over time and according to the social or military status of the deceased. Fashions too changed: in some periods we have mostly cremations, at other times burials dominate: until the late second century, cremation was the preferred exit from this life. Then inhumation became the method of dispatch of choice and co-existed with cremation for some seventy years with cremation discontinued from about 270. As we have noted, the emperor Septimius Severus himself was cremated in York in 211 before his remains were returned to Rome.

Inhumation itself was subject to trends in ritual with crouched burials found in the station area, the Mount and Trentholme Drive. Upright burials have been found too, as are inhumations in which, for the well-to-do, favourite objects from a life well lived were buried as grave goods: for example, horses, dogs and goblets (Royal Commission on Historical Monuments York p. 85), all indicative of a life devoted to hunting. Those of lower birth benefitted too from this thoughtful charity with less ostentatious goods. Disorganised as it was, Trentholme Drive gives us an excellent picture of lower-order pagan religious belief and ritual. We have found lachrymatories – unguent-filled flask-shaped glass bottles for catching mourners’ tears – and gifts including coins, gaming counters, food and pottery. Cinerary urns were routinely holed to render them redundant and useless to grave robbers.

Trentholme Drive has yielded forty cinerary urns and part of the ustrina – the place where the dead were incinerated. Unsurprisingly, the charred debris found here contained human and animal bones, nails (from boots, coffins and biers), pottery sherds, rings, pins and brooches. Local wood and coal from Middleton Main and Middleton Little seams near Leeds have also been discovered.

In York, calcined bones have been unearthed in urns and amphorae; a glass jar with a lead bung in the neck found in 1861 contained the ashes of Corellia Optata, a 13-year-old girl whose movingly inscribed tombstone was set up by her grieving father, Quintus Corellius Fortis. Then there are three lead canisters – one of which bore the sad inscription:

to Ulpia Felicissima, who lived for 8 years 11 months and ? days, Marcus Ulpius Felix and ? Andronica, her parents had this made

A number of stone coffins or cists have also been found, mainly on the railway station site with another two in the Multangular Tower. Famously there is also a tiled tomb made from eight tegulae or flat tiles each with the stamp of Legio IX Hispana.

Cemeteries at Burton Stone Lane and Clifton Fields are half a mile from the fortress with others at Heworth; Dringhouses; the Mount (including Trentholme Drive); Holgate; at the railway station, Nunnery Lane; Bar Convent; Baile Hill; Clementhorpe; Clifford’s Tower; Hawthorne Drive; Heworth Green; Bootham near St Peter’s School; near what was Queen Anne’s Grammar School in Clifton where St Olave’s School is now; and Fishergate. There was a small inhumation cemetery near the junction of Haxby and Wigginton Roads comprising twelve burials; it yielded pottery on its discovery in 1833 – all of these, of course, were outside the fortress walls.

Wooden coffins (subject, of course, as they were to decomposition) were the norm, but York is unusual in the large number of stone (ninety) and lead (twenty-five) coffins found. Women (or at least the wealthier women) were often buried adorned with their jewellery and the finest jet items from around Whitby – bracelets, anklets, rings, hair pins, medallions with figures in relief – have been found in York burials. Burials vary from cremated remains either in ceramic pots or holes in the ground to the more common inhumations, and, again for the wealthy or high-ranking military and civic leaders, inscribed sarcophagi sometimes, but rarely, placed in elaborate purpose-built mausoleums. A vaulted tomb discovered in 1807 still survives in the cellar at 104 The Mount. Made from brick and stone it is 3m x 2m, 2.5m high and contains the bones of a woman aged about 40; her finger bones revealed that she had never been troubled by manual work of any kind. Two lachrymatories – glass phials – were found on either side of her skull.

York, then, is blessed with one of the largest collections of stone coffins in Britain. Weighing between 1.5 and 2 tonnes they are made from millstone grit quarried in the Pennines. Fine examples of sarcophagi are in the Yorkshire Museum together with tombstone grave markers erected in remembrance of Eboracum’s more prominent citizens.

Twenty-five lead coffins have been excavated here, some lined with wood, some enclosed in wood and one as the lining to a stone coffin – this was discovered in 1875 under the railway station booking office and contained the skeleton of a teenage girl whose auburn hair tied in a bun with two jet pins is now resplendent in the Yorkshire Museum. A stone cist was found in 1952 in Trentholme Drive with the remains of a 40-year-old man in a wooden coffin: an urn had been deliberately placed under the coffin directly beneath the heart of the deceased.

Between 1951 and 1958, a 240 sqm area around Trentholme Drive was excavated yielding the skeletons of over 300 men, women and children. Two iron arrow heads and an iron shield boss were found but apart from these military objects the cemetery was civilian. Grave goods indicated the dead had been relatively poor. The burials were haphazard with no placement planning in evidence; indeed the cemetery had been used a number of times with subsequent burials overlying earlier occupants and with bones all over the place.

A. F. Norman’s vivid description of this morbid recycling in Religion in Roman York is worth quoting:

[Trentholme Drive shows] a continued re-use of the site, with drastic disturbance of existing burials. Nothing is more indicative of the determined, almost ruthless, piety of the family to secure a decent funeral for their own dead, than the mangled remains which have survived from the earlier burials following the intrusion of later funerals. Skeletons are dug through and skulls detached, and the bits and pieces of disarticulated bones hurriedly jumbled together in the filling of these later graves.

Most of the graves were accompanied by a pot, or pots containing food and drink to facilitate the deceased’s journey through the underworld into the afterlife. A total of 150 complete or near-complete pots were found in all positions in relation to the bodies. Organised laying out of bodies was absent with every imaginable position represented: five were buried on their faces, some (usually children) were crouched, others on their sides, two were back to back and foot to foot, two teenagers were embracing each other, two were folded up in a sack and had been dumped in a hole. Most, of course, were on their backs, arms at their side or folded across their chests, legs crossed or straight. Some 2,500 nails indicated the presence of coffins. Animal and bird bones suggest they were buried with the dead – another source of postmortem food; animals included sheep, goats, oxen, horse, cats, pigs and deer. The embracing youths referred to above were found with the complete skeleton of a hen on the uppermost’s back. Three of the pots had coins in them, four contained hen’s eggshells. Seven skulls contained the obligatory coin to pay surly infernal ferryman Charon the fare required for the perilous crossing of the River Styx.

Charon – Who Pays the Ferryman?

Charon, the unkempt and grumpy ferryman has a long, not very illustrious history. One of our best sources is Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid. You met him as you clamoured with hordes of other recently dead, anxious to get over the murky underworld river Styx. Conditions were not good: there were frantic crowds pressing in on you; the ferryman was churlish and repellent, and his gloomy boat leaked. Moreover, some say you even had to help with the rowing, and everyone had to have the right change ready. No obol, no ride. No ride, no afterlife.

Charon’s credentials for the job were excellent. He was the son of brother and sister Nyx (night) and Erebus (darkness); he was the brother of Thanatos (death) and Hypnos (sleep). Nyx was born of Chaos and gave birth to Moros (doom), Ker (fate, destruction, death), as well as other morbid characters who included Thanatos, Hypnos, the Oneiroi (dreams), Momus (blame), Oizys (woe, pain, distress), the Moirai (fates), Nemesis; Apate (deceit), Philotes; Geras (old age), and Eris (strife). Not much hope there.

His name comes from χαρωπός (charopós), ‘he of the keen gaze’, and reflects his piercing, laser-like eyes; Charon is forever a euphemism for doom and death.

Roman Health and Disease

The excavations here did much to advance our knowledge of Roman health and disease: over seventy-five of the people died before 40 – only sixty-five out of 342 reached beyond 45. The tallest man was 6ft 4ins, the average 5ft 5ins; women averaged 5ft 2ins – slightly taller than today’s average. Rheumatism and arthritis were present in everyone over 30 – a consequence of the damp and cold. Pott’s Disease – tuberculous (TB) spondylitis – extrapulmonary TB affecting the spine – has been found in skeletons in York as well as at Poundbury and Cirencester.

Skeletal evidence shows many of the inhabitants to have lived a life of conflict – not especially surprising given the Romans’ endless warring and the lengthy military careers of its soldiery. Twenty-one healed upper and lower-limb fractures have been found, including fractured thigh bones; several more thigh bones displayed depressions consistent with sword cuts. Squatting facets – the remodelling of the bones at the front of the talus, or ankle joint – in women’s bones found at Trentholme Drive indicate that they spent a lot of time squatting: cooking and tending the fires. Another interesting female skeleton found there gave us a poorly healed right femur which induced a variation in her lumber vertebrae and, no doubt, a pronounced limp: speculation is that she was a professional acrobat. Collarbone injuries and osteoarthritis, mainly in the spine, were common. Two bone tumours were found. There was no sign of tuberculosis, or rickets which suggested a decent enough diet. Dental health was generally good although there were signs of extractions, abscesses and decay; largely free from caries, less than five per cent of the 5,000 teeth examined showed signs of decay although there were signs of impacted wisdom teeth. Grit-lined mortaria, stone querns, as well as plenty of roughage in the diet, no doubt contributed to the well-worn condition of the teeth.

Generally speaking, opticians were to be found throughout the province in both military and civil settings: opticians’ stamps impacted on all four sides of small square stone slabs have been found in York; Galen (12 –210), the noted Greek physician, tells us about a Briton call Stolus who prescribed an eye salve or coryllia.

Female skulls showed the women to be almost all of Celtic origin but the men were a more diverse group: five came from the eastern Mediterranean, seven were Scandinavian while one was a negro; there were a number of Germans.

To modern sensitivities, the discovery of dead infants, however ancient, is naturally abhorrent. However, the Romans seem to have become relatively inured to infant mortality, probably because it was so prevalent. The skeleton of a baby found in the remains of a barrack block beneath Blake Street was unusual because it was discovered in a military setting. Babies were often buried in houses because they were not considered complete humans until after forty days and so did not qualify for a formal burial in a cemetery. To find a child’s skeleton in a barracks is surprising indeed and may suggest that it was a votive offering. An infant’s body was found under the ramparts at Winchester – one of a number up and down the country. Babies have been found in stone-lined cists in buildings and under eaves at Catsgore near Taunton with some ceremony, presumably to assist them on their way into the next world. An infant cemetery has been unearthed at Barton Court Farm villa near Abingdon while at York the Trentholme Drive cemetery reveals no neonatals, suggesting they too had their own burial space as yet undiscovered.

Equally disturbing is the report of the skeleton unearthed from a shallow pit at the Vindolanda Roman fort in 2010. Dr Trudi Buck, a biological anthropologist at Durham University, was unable to determine whether it was a boy or girl but it is believed that the child, aged about 10 and who was tied up, died from a blow to the head and that the body was surreptitiously concealed. The pit has been dated to the mid-third century, when the Fourth Cohort of Gauls were the garrison. Tests on the child’s tooth enamel showed that he or she grew up in the Mediterranean. ‘Until the child was at least 7 or 8, he or she must have been in southern Europe or even North Africa,’ Dr Buck told the BBC. Speaking to The Guardian, Patricia Birley, director of the Vindolanda Trust, added: ‘This definitely looks like a case of foul play. It has been very sad to find a child in this shallow grave under the barrack floor.’

The exposure of infants, particularly female and deformed babies, was rife. It was not until 374 that child exposure was outlawed when infanticide became the legal equivalent of murder. In an earlier bid to restrict the practice, Constantine had offered free food and clothing to new parents and legalised the sale of babies, mainly into slavery, in 329. However, it was still going on some years later: the skeletons of 100 or so infants were excavated from the bottom of a drain in Ashkelon dating from the sixth century AD.

Parasitic Disease in York

What with all those public baths, latrines with washing facilities, sewer systems, fountains and clean drinking water from aqueducts you would think that the Romans (at least the comfortably off ones) would have enjoyed a reasonable level of personal hygiene and were largely free from chronic stomach upsets and intestinal disease generally. Not a bit of it; research led by Piers Mitchell from the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, and published in the journal Parasitology, found that baths and the like did nothing to protect the Romans from those annoying, embarrassing parasites.

Mitchell and his team rolled up their sleeves and used archaeological evidence from cesspits, sewer drains, rubbish pits, burials and other sites to assess the impact of parasites across Roman Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.

Unfortunately for the Romans, analysis of all of the above plus ancient latrines, human burials and coprolites (fossilised faeces) clearly demonstrated that, instead of decreasing as expected, the number of intestinal parasites actually increased compared with the preceding Iron Age. ‘The impressive sanitation technologies introduced by the Romans did not seem to have delivered the health benefits that we would expect,’ Mitchell said. He found that the most widely spread intestinal parasites in the Roman Empire were whipworm (Trichuris trichiura) and roundworm (Ascaris lumbricoides), which are transmitted by the contamination of food with faeces. ‘It could have been spread by the use of unwashed hands to prepare food or by the use of human faeces as crop fertilizer,’ Mitchell concluded. Also prolific was Entamoeba histolytica, a protozoan that causes dysentery, with bloody diarrhoea, abdominal pain and fevers. It is contracted by drinking water contaminated by human faeces.

Ectoparasites such as lice and fleas were as common among Romans as in later Viking and medieval populations, where bathing was not so widely practised. Despite all their regular bathing and flushing of latrines, the Romans systematically undid all that good Public Health Britannia work by using as a substitute for toilet paper and for solo hand washing . . . a communal sponge on a stick. These, of course, were breeding grounds for dysentery, diarrhoea and parasites.

Attempts to sweeten things up came with a multitude of perfumes which could be freely splashed over man and woman alike. These were contained in glass flasks called unguentaria in various shapes and sizes. From York we have a squat vessel with a tulip-shaped neck, its base stamped with ‘Patrimoni’, designating the manufacturer of the unguent. There is also a ring-shaped bottle, jet bracelet and a bronze-mounted casket found in a grave here.

The food chain was another culprit, contributing to the gastrointestinal problems. ‘Human and animal faeces were often used to fertilize crops, thus leading to reinfection of the population with intestinal parasites when they ate this food,’ Mitchell said. The study also found fish tapeworm eggs surprisingly widespread in the Roman Empire, in contrast to the evidence from the Bronze and Iron Ages. The ever-popular fermented fish sauce (garum) may not have helped: garum was made from pieces of fish, herbs, salt and flavourings but the sauce was not cooked, instead it was allowed to ferment in the sun. ‘Fish tapeworm eggs could have been transported large distances across the empire in the garum sauce and then consumed,’ Mitchell explained.

As noted, two pandemics ravaged the Roman world during the time Eburacum was occupied. The first was the Antonine Plague, AD 165–180 and the second was the Plague of Cyprian in AD 250–271. We have no records of the latter’s spread to and within Britannia but there is relatively recent evidence of the Antonine Plague on Hadrian’s Wall and in other places. Both the Antonine and Cyprian plagues drained the Roman armies of manpower, skills and experience and wrecked the Roman economy; these would have had a negative effect on the province and would have been keenly felt in major places such as York.

As we have described, the Antonine Plague, or the Plague of Galen, which was probably smallpox, may have claimed the life of Emperor Lucius Verus, who died in 169 and was the co-emperor with Marcus Aurelius. In 168, as Verus and Marcus Aurelius returned to Rome from the field, Verus fell ill with symptoms misdiagnosed with those consistent with food poisoning, dying after a few days. However, scholars now believe that Verus may have succumbed to smallpox. Some also believe that Marcus Aurelius himself died from this plague some eleven years later. We have already seen how this pestilence was probably a contributory factor in the abandonment of the Antonine Wall – so depleted was the army around the empire that troops from Scotland were sent south to consolidate Hadrian’s Wall. The depletion in manpower could have been caused either by high mortality amongst the troops or else by having to plug the gaps left by soldiers who had been redeployed elsewhere.

The causative agent of the Plague of Cyprian is highly speculative: suspects have included smallpox, pandemic influenza and viral haemorrhagic fever (filoviruses), such as the Ebola virus. The plague greatly hampered the Roman Empire’s ability to ward off barbarian invasions, not helped by additional problems such as depopulation and famine, with many farms abandoned and unproductive as farmers sought refuge in the cities. The absence of consistent leadership and the further dilution of the military during all the political instability, and the ineptitude of a long succession of short-lived emperors all incapable of stemming the contagion – two of them died from the plague, Hostilian in 251 and Claudius II Gothicus in 270 – just added to the empire’s parlous state. The relentless march of the disease through every corner of the empire with Christians (who were blamed for it) ennobling it by comparing the suffering it caused with the excruciating pain endured by martyrs. Others grappled with anxiety and panic, believing the contagion to be spread through ‘corrupted air’ that pervaded the empire, or that the disease was transmitted through the clothes, or simply by being looked at by an infected person. See Appendix 13.

Gypsum Burials

The cemetery beneath the railway station was particularly fruitful after excavations in 1839–41, 1845, and 1870–7. A number of sarcophagi were unearthed including those of Flavius Bellator and Julia Fortunata. Inhumation burial in sarcophagi sometimes entailed pouring gypsum (hydrous calcium chlorate) in as a liquid in order to encase the body in a lead coffin. The gypsum casts, when found undisturbed, often retain an impression of the deceased and their clothing, usually a textile shroud – the numerous sarcophagi from Eboracum have provided a large number of these casts, in some cases with cloth stuck to the gypsum. York is notable for this method; the raw material was quarried at Hillam, near Monk Fryston some fifteen miles from York.

The tombstone of Flavia and Saenius Augusta depicts a set square and mason’s hammer. Below a double canopy stands the veteran with his wife on his right. He wears a tunic and long cloak and carries a scroll in the left hand (his will?). His wife wears a tunic and shawl, and holds a bird in her right hand. In front stand a boy and girl, dressed and posed like their parents. It was found at the Mount and used as a lid for Aelia Severa’s gypsum coffin. She was wife or daughter to Caecilius Rufus, decurion. Rufus’ freedman and heir, Caecilius Musicus, organised Aelia’s burial with the tombstone of Flavia Augustina recycled as a lid. A decurion (decurio) in this context was a cavalry officer in command of a squadron (turma) of cavalrymen.

Julia Victorina’s occupancy of her coffin, found in Castle Yard, was short lived as the centurion’s wife and her 4-year-old son, Constantius, were evicted to make way for a male gypsum burial (RIB 683, 685). The centurion was a former soldier in the Praetorian Guard, Septimius Lupianus presumably attached to the VIth legion. The invading corpse was deliberately positioned so as to obscure Julia’s inscription, as was that of Aurelius Super, centurion of the VIth legion (RIB 670) also found in 1835 in York Castle Yard:

To the spirits of the departed (and) to Aurelius Super, centurion of the Sixth Legion, who lived 38 years, 4 months, 13 days; his wife, Aurelia Censorina, set up this memorial.

Two gypsum burials at York have revealed evidence of frankincense and another for pistacia (a genus of flowering plants in the cashew family) resin used in funerary rites. This is the northernmost confirmed use of aromatic resins in mortuary contexts during the Roman period.

Gypsum encasing the body of the deceased was no doubt an attempt to embalm and preserve; unfortunately gypsum acts in the opposite way – as an accelerant to decomposition of bones and tissue. Nevertheless, as we have said, the chemical does leave a trace of the body outline and winding sheet – the most interesting example is the outline of a woman with that of a newborn positioned between her legs; casualties no doubt of childbirth mortality. The burial is described in Eboracum (1962) as:

Large coffin, of stone, found in July 1851, at a depth of 3ft under a house at the corner of Price’s Lane and Bishopgate Street, containing the skeleton of a woman with the skeleton of a child between her legs. The bodies had been covered in gypsum, forming a cast ... with fragments of cloth still adhering to it. No grave goods are preserved from this coffin, but a hole above the left shoulder of the woman’s skeleton shows whence some were removed.

Not surprisingly, ingesting gypsum is not good for you, as Caius Proculeius, a good friend of Augustus found to his cost. A nonchalant-sounding Pliny the Elder (Natural History 36, 59) tells us how, ‘suffering from violent pains in the stomach, [he] swallowed gypsum, and so put an end to his existence.’

We have seen how funeral feasts are depicted on the tombstones of Julia Velva.

RIB describes it as follows:

The deceased, Julia Velva, reclines on a couch, though appearing to stand behind it, with a cup in her hand. At the head, in front of a second table, stands her heir Mercurialis, who is bearded and wears tunic, cloak, and boots and holds in his right hand the scroll of the will. On the left of a second three-legged table (in front of Julia’s couch) sits a lady in a wicker chair with a bird in her hands. On the right of the table stands a second figure with a jug, presumably an attendant. The formula suis, ‘family’, suggests that the figure in the chair is a relative of Mercurialis.

Epigraphical Evidence in York

Many of the funerary inscriptions described above give us much important detail about the Roman army, army careers and troop locations. Civilian epigraphs reveal valuable information about adult and child mortality, morbidity, family life, social status, epigraphy protocol, religious beliefs and ritual, and reactions to death.

The Romans had gods and goddesses for every conceivable stage and facet of life, and death – from conception to life in the afterlife. Deities and numen, spirits, attended the Romans’ every act and were worshipped accordingly. Excavations in York have revealed the altars and dedication stones devoted to thirty or so different divinities set up at one time or another, including Venus; Mars; Mercury; Bellona (goddess of war); Neptune; Hercules; Castor and Pollux; Jupiter; Tethys; Hospitality and the Home (Jupiter, Hospitalis et Penates); Britannia; Veteris; Silvanus; Toutatis; Chnoubis and Fortune; the Divinity of the Emperor (numen Augusti) as well as references to the spiritual representation (genius Eboraci) of Eboracum, the genius of the Place (Genius Loci) and dedications to the Mother Goddess and various local and regional deities. Celtic deities include Boudiga, Arciaco, and Sucelus – the latter two unique to Eboracum in Britannia. The surviving remains of the Temple of Hercules gives us two of the names of the men who rebuilt it: Titus Perpetuus and Aeternus – citizens of York both.

We have already discussed Bellona, the goddess of war, in the context of Severus’ victories in Caledonia and his death in York soon after visiting Bellona’s temple. As everywhere, the cult of the emperor was alive and well in Eboracum under the aegis of the seviri augustales (six men of the emperor). The two we know of from Eboracum are Marcus Aurelius Lunaris and Marcus Vercundus Diogenes. The coffin on which Diogenes’ name appeared (found near Scarborough Bridge) is now lost, although his wife’s does survive: Sardinian Julia Fortunata (RIB 687). It was unearthed during the building of the railway station – but it contained the skeleton of a man. This is a good example of the recycling of sarcophagi which, if anything, would have been cheaper when second hand – sold as having had one careful owner? Or free even, if it was grave-robbed. Verecundus Diogenes was a sevir augustalis; these magistrates looked after the cult of the emperor’s divinity – a symbol of loyalty – ceremony and entertainment. Diogenes hailed from Bourges, southern France. He was also a sevir of the Morini (a Belgic coastal tribe, living around present-day Boulogne-sur-Mer) and trader (moritix) who settled at York. Another example of thrifty reuse comes with the demise of Flavius Bellator – a decurion who died age 29; he, or his skeleton, was wearing his official gold ring, set with a ruby (RIB 674). His coffin was discovered on the south-west side of the Scarborough Railway Bridge but it contained the remains of someone much younger. The inscription is also notable for its reference to Eboracum:

D(is) M(anibus)

Fl[a]vi Bellatoris dec(urionis) col(oniae) Eboracens(is) vixit annis XXVIIII mensib[us . . .

Celerinius Vitalis set up an altar to the god of the woods, Silvanus (RIB 659). Perhaps he was desperate to get out of his office and into the forests around York. It was found at the Mount with RIB 664 in 1884:

To the holy god Silvanus, Lucius Celerinius Vitalis, cornicularius of the Ninth Legion Hispana, with this offering gladly, willingly, and deservedly fulfilled his vow. Let the gift, this very gift, form part: I must beware of touching.

A corniculārius or cornicular was an officer who served as the adjutant to a centurion, so named for wearing a cornicule (corniculum), a small, horn-shaped badge.

Marcus Aurelius Lunaris is described as ‘sevir Augustalis of the colonies of Eburacum and Lindum in the province of Lower Britain’. He dedicates to ‘Protecting Goddess Boudig’ and to Salus on surviving the voyage to Bordeaux in 237. Boudig is a British deity, the Celtic equivalent of Rome’s Victoria – the combination of the two reinforces the gradual and discreet Romanisation programme that people such as Lunaris were undergoing.

To the memory of Julia Fortunata from Sardinia; (she was) a loyal wife to her husband, Verecundius Diogenes.

Sadly for Julia (who was not as lucky as her name might promise) we have all been much more interested in her husband and generally miss the significance of Julia herself. What little we learn from these brief lines is that she was Sardinian and that she was a loyal wife, a true matrona. The epigraphs celebrating deceased women found in York are untypical of women’s epigraphs empire wide and surprisingly personal, perhaps. Certainly, much of the epigraphical evidence from elsewhere suggests a high degree of subservience, compliance and unobtrusiveness amongst the women honoured and so reflects the general situation in Roman society. More significantly, though, most of what we have is formulaic, trotting out as it does standard qualities and typical domestic virtues; its value as evidence of a woman’s actual life and real lifestyle may be diluted as a result.

Fairly typical is ‘Here lies Amymone, wife of Marcus, the best and most beautiful, wool spinner, dutiful, modest, careful with money, chaste, stay-at-home’ (CIL 6, 11602). It ticks all the boxes for the stock eulogy, Amymone’s virtues reflect the ideal Roman wife, the compliant matrona. Many of the qualifying epithets are here: optima, pulcherrima, lanifica, pia, pudica, frugi, casta, domiseda. Claudia was much the same: beautiful, loving, mother of two children (one dead, one living), a bit of a wit (sermone lepida), good bearing (incessu commoda), looked after the home, and worked the wool (lanam fecit) (CIL 1, 1007). The six most frequent ‘adjectives’, as assessed by Werner Riess (In Rari Exempla Femina p. 493), are dulcissima (sweetest), pia (dutiful), bene merens (well-deserving), carissima (dearest), optima (best) and sanctissima (most chaste). We could add to the list: (she) valued a traditional lifestyle (antiqua vita), friendly and amusing (comis), modestly turned out (ornata non conspiciendi); a one-man woman (univira) and religious, but not with all that superstition stuff (religiosa sine superstitione). These epithets crop up with extraordinary regularity. Our Julia Velva is pientissime, most dutiful.

At the very least, then, tombstone inscriptions help us because they describe an ideal, if not the absolute reality, of wifely, feminine virtue; they tell us what men expected from a wife or a mother. They probably reflect the normal, everyday, tolerably happy marriage in which husband and wife rub along together, and miss the other when one of them dies. Some wives would have been all the things the standard epigraphs tell us; others less so. Moreover, in a society where the woman’s world was usually defined by the confines – physical and social – of the familia and the house, the domus, the tombstone eulogy – hackneyed as it often seems to us – may be the best a woman could wish for, or even desired: a fitting tribute to a dedicated wife or mother from a loving husband or son for a life well lived. In the wider context, then, our Julia was fortunate to be described as Verec(undio) Diogeni fida coniuncta marito: a loyal wife to her husband, Verecundius Diogenes.

RIB 684 is, as we have seen, a plaintive funerary inscription in hexameters for 13-year-old Corellia Optata found at the Mount in 1861. It reads:

To the spirits of the departed: Corellia Optata, aged 13. You mysterious spirits who dwell in Pluto’s Acherusian realms, and whom the meagre ashes and the shade, empty semblance of the body, seek, following the brief light of life; father of an innocent daughter, I, a pitiable victim of unfair hope, bewail her final end. Quintus Corellius Fortis, her father, had this set up.

A large glass vessel inside the coffin, sealed with lead, contained Corellia’s ashes. The reference to Dis – god of the underworld – and Acheron – one of the rivers of the underworld – make this epitaph particularly vivid and pathetic. It also adumbrates an aspect of Roman eschatology with its reference to the shade which the body has now become: simulacrum corpo(r)is umbra.

Another find is an altar dedicated to Veteris found in the garden of the Bar Convent, in 1880 (RIB 660). Veteris was a Celtic god; during the third century AD, the cult was particularly popular in the Roman army.

CIL VI 9143: an inscribed tablet dedicated to Calpurnia found at the site of the old railway station; date about 1840 (RIB 662) is more interesting to us for what is on the back: a bronze plate which was originally silvered. RIB 663 is one of two bronze votive tablets with its Greek inscription in punched dots...; this one is stuck to the back; it reads:

To the gods of the legate’s residence (praetorium) Scribonius Demetrius (set this up).

Demetrius is presumably Scribonius Demetrius of Tarsus, the grammaticus (teacher), who took part in Plutarch’s dialogue De Defectu Oraculorum (410A, 434C) – On the Dilapidation of the Oracles – just before the Pythian festival in AD 83–84. Demetrius had recently returned to Tarsus from his visit to Britain where he had accompanied a voyage to the Western Islands of Scotland on imperial orders – ‘an Imperial expedition of enquiry and survey’. His report lends credence and strength to the mysterious and frightening reputation enjoyed by our islands: some are named after Celtic spirits and heroes as corroborated by the twenty-seven islands named in the Ravenna Cosmography, while the inhabitants of one are ‘holy and inviolate’. Demetrius’ landing was accompanied by a severe storm with lightning, thunder and waterspouts; only the extinguishing of the Greater Spirits brought storms and disease. Demetrius adds that a slumbering Cronus was imprisoned there, guarded by Briareus.

RIB 662-663 is the second of the two:

To Ocean and Tethys Demetrius (set this up).

This short dedication has considerable significance as it echoes the words used by Alexander the Great on the altars he set up at the mouth of the River Indus in 325 BC (Diodorus 17,104), the furthest east he reached. Demetrius is drawing a direct connection between Alexander’s achievement and Rome’s parallel achievement in reaching the furthest point west of their empire, their ultima Thule. A. F. Norman describes it as ‘his individual conception of her as the [Tethys] heir and successor to the greatest conqueror and civiliser of the ancient world.’ At the same time it is perhaps evidence of the educational programme established by Agricola at York (Ogilvie p. 33) in order to help Romanise the sons of the tribal aristocracies and replace fear and loathing with an acceptance of the Roman way of doing things (Tacitus, Agricola 21). Some of the boys were students, others were hostages who stayed in the governor’s house for this.

A dedication to the Divinities of the Emperor and to the goddess Joug (RIB 656) found in 1839 on the site of the bank at the junction of Nessgate and Ousegate (with RIB 648 and 698) gives us:

To the Divinities of the Emperor and to the goddess Joug̣[. . . . . .]sius . . . half of the shrine . . ..

RIB suggests the name of the goddess is formed from Celtic iougon, a yoke. It is now in the Yorkshire Museum. Joug was a local York deity and this, along with another local god, Arciacon, are both linked with the divinity of the emperor(s) (RIB 640). Another example of religion and loyalty to the emperor conjoined. It was found beneath a pillar in the church of St Denys, Walmgate, in 1839 and is now also in the Yorkshire Museum. The dedication reads:

To the god Arciaco and to the Divinity of the Emperor, Mat(. . .) Vitalis, centurion, willingly and deservedly fulfilled his vow.

Then there is the dedication (RIB 666) slab to Trajan found in 1879 at the north end of the Fine Art Exhibition Building, now the City Art Gallery, north west of Bootham Bar, the site of one of the Roman gates. And the one dedicated to Marcus Aurelius (RIB 667) excavated during digging the foundations for the Mechanics’ Institute in Clifford Street.

RIB 653 is an altar dedicated to the African, Italian, and Gallic Mother Goddesses found in Micklegate, opposite Holy Trinity Church in 1752. Likewise, the stone altar RIB 654 found in 1850, in Park Place, Monkgate, on the line of the road leading north east to Malton.

The altar dedicated to Mars (RIB 650) was found in the Bar Convent, in 1880. Described in Eboracum (1962) as:

Altar, of gritstone, 7ins by 1ft by 7ins, found in 1880 in a dump of Roman stones . . . with burials below them, at St Mary’s Convent, close to the main Roman road, just outside the built up area of the Roman town. The stones had been gathered together after the Roman period.

It reads:

To the god Mars, Agrius Auspex pays his vow willingly and deservedly.

The altar dedicated to Jupiter Optimus Maximus (RIB 649): on the right side is a weathered figure holding a staff in its left hand. On the left side is a sacrificial scene with a male figure in a knee-length tunic and possibly a hairband, holding an animal; there is a wreath above this animal. It is now believed that the figure is a military figure in profile facing right wearing a crested helmet and possibly armour, with a band sculpted around his neck. The RIB archive tentatively describes the right-side relief as possibly Jupiter (‘figure with shaft in left hand, weathered away below waist’), and the left-side relief as Hercules (‘figure with ? headdress faces sin. And seems to wrestle with an animal (? lion), corona above ? Hercules’). Only the first two lines are preserved; it was found in 1638 while digging the foundation of a house on the site at Castlegate where Fairfax House was later built in 1762. Now among the Chandler Marbles, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. The dedication reads:

To Jupiter Best and Greatest, to the gods and goddesses of hospitality and to the Penates, for having kept safe the welfare of himself and of his household, Publius Aelius Marcianus, prefect of the cohort, had this altar set up . . .

The stone altar (RIB 646): the capital and part of the base are lost; found at the north end of the current railway station in 1875. It lay at the head of a skeleton with a glass vessel nearby. The dedication is:

to the god, the Genius of the place, willingly and deservedly pays his vow.

The statue base (RIB 643) found in 1740 inside Micklegate Bar is now lost but we know the inscription:

To holy Britannia. Nikomedes, freedman of our Emperors, set (this) up.

At the corner of High Ousegate and Nessgate, the foundation stone on the wall of a bank (RIB 648) is a copy of an important inscribed stone found (with RIB 656 and 698) when the building was being built in 1839. It describes the restoration of a temple dedicated to Hercules and includes something quite special. References to the Roman name for York, Eboracum, found in York are very rare (see Appendix 8), and this is one of only two to have been found. It translates as ‘To Hercules . . . Titus Perpetuius (?) Aetern[us . . . of the colony of York . . . restored . . .’. The size of the stone would suggest that at least half is missing.

Other funerary epitaphs include:

An altar erected by the wife of Antonius Isauricus, Sosia Iuncina, dedicated to Fortuna in the bath house in the colonia. Isauricus was Imperial Legate, the most senior officer in Eboracum at the time.

The tombstone of Titus Flavius Flavinus, centurion of the VIth Victrix, was erected by his heir, Classicius Aprilis; Flavinus was clearly a cautious and prudent man: he must have ordered this before his death (RIB 675). It was found at the end of Rawcliffe Lane in 1927.

This is the inscription found at the Mount in 1852 (RIB 680). Novaria (modern Novara) lies west of Milan, and belonged to Claudia tribus. As the VIth Legion replaced the IXth Hispana at York about 120, the deceased must have died by that time, or, if in retirement, within a few years of that date.

To Gaius . . ., son of Gaius, of the Claudian voting-tribe [Cl(audia)] (tribu), from Novaria, . . . of the Ninth Legion Hispana, his heirs and freedmen set this up to their own well-deserving patron.

A tribus, or tribe, was a division of the Roman people, making up the voting units of a legislative assembly of the Roman Republic. The word may be derived from tribuere, to divide or distribute. Tradition has it that the first three Roman tribes were established by Romulus; each was divided into ten curiae, or wards, which were the voting units of the comitia curiata. The Claudian voting tribe was quite prestigious and worth reminding people that you were part of it, even if it was on your tombstone. When the Sabine Appius Claudius removed to Rome together with his clientes, in 504 BC, he was admitted to the patriciate, and assigned lands in the region around the mouth of the Anio. These settlers became the basis of the tribus Claudia, which was admitted in 495 BC, during Claudius’ consulship, and subsequently enlarged to become the tribus Crustumina or Clustumina.

Two of the significant excavations exposing the Roman period are:

Hungate 2006–2012

This major archaeological excavation was the largest developer-funded project to take place in York up to 2006, and the biggest urban excavation in the city for twenty-five years, covering a 26,900 sq ft area. York Archaeological Trust (YAT) spent five years on the dig before handing the site back to developers. Hungate has been under continuous occupation for most of the past 2,000 years. Part of the site contains the remains of an early Roman cemetery.

Project director Peter Connelly told the BBC: ‘It is the largest Roman cemetery excavated in York for a century. We’ve discovered amazing pieces of Roman jewellery.’ These jewels include a Roman necklace consisting of 299 small glass beads and rare jet jewellery dating from the third or fourth centuries.

Newington Hotel 2017–18 Cemetery Adjacent to the Trentholme Drive Site

The redevelopment of the former Newington Hotel gave YAT a chance to explore and study an important aspect of York’s Roman past.

The site is on Mount Vale, only about 200 yards from where YAT uncovered the headless Roman skeletons of Driffield Terrace; it is part of a Roman cemetery that was first excavated by Peter Wenham on the neighbouring Trentholme Drive site in the 1950s – one of the first Romano-British burial grounds to be fully published in the UK.

In April 2018, seventy-five Roman skeletons were discovered on the site; they were unearthed under the swimming pool, in an extension to the Roman burial ground further up Mount Vale. YAT describes it as follows:

Included among exciting finds have been grave goods in the form of pottery, dishes, jars, flagons and beakers and also traces of the coffins in which the dead were laid to rest. These burials are currently thought to date to a period spanning the 2nd to 4th centuries AD and, as the finds suggest, to have been of people of a relatively lowly social status.

The seventy-five graves were mostly very shallow indicating that many of them had been plough damaged throughout the medieval period and nineteenth-century construction.

YAT adds:

At first glance, the image is decidedly chaotic: rather than lying in regimented rows the graves crowd together, oriented towards all points of the compass and frequently intercutting. As for who was buried there, this was a demographically diverse cemetery, populated by both men and women, and individuals of all ages from infants to elderly adults – although they seem to have been broadly of the same social class.

Nor was there anything immediately spectacular about the objects that accompanied these everyday individuals to the grave – only two contained any items of personal adornment. One grave yielded a jet pin, while another individual had been interred wearing some kind of copper alloy head ornament whose flaky, corroded remains had left a green stain on their forehead. Otherwise, grave goods were limited to pots, which were found interred with young and old alike.

The Wold Newton Hoard – ‘A Once in a Lifetime Find’

One day in 2014, metal detectorist David Blakey was out detecting near the village of Wold Newton, East Yorkshire when he came across this hugely important hoard in a ceramic pot.

The quick-witted David Blakey filmed its discovery and immediately reported it to the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) rather than just emptying it out. This has allowed archaeologists the rare opportunity to excavate it in different layers to see how different coins were added to the vessel.

As the museum website tells us:

insect remains attached to some of the coins also offer another way of analysing the contents. All this means there is huge potential for getting a greater understanding of the period and why it was buried. The hoard can be dated quite precisely, with the latest coins in the hoard suggesting it was hidden in 307. This is shortly after the death of the emperor Constantius in York, and the rise to power of his son, Constantine the Great. The hoard provides a link to events which would reshape the empire and the history of Europe.

The Wold Newton hoard is the largest of that period found in northern Britain. It contains 1,857 copper coins which were concealed within a ceramic pot. This is a large store of wealth, roughly equivalent to a legionary’s annual salary, three year’s salary for a carpenter or six years for a farm labourer. It could buy 700 chickens, 2,000 of the finest fish or 11,000 pints of beer!

On being declared treasure, the hoard was valued at just over £44,200. The Yorkshire Museum ran a fundraising campaign (launched on 25 July 2016 to raise the money, which included donations from hundreds of people from around the world, £10,000 from the Arts Council/Victoria and Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund and a donation of £9,981 from the American Friends of the Arts Fund). The hoard went on public display on 1 June 2017 in the Yorkshire Museum as part of the York Roman Festival.

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