A SUNDAY TIMES BESTSELLER 'Tender, fascinating ... Lucid and illuminating' Robert Macfarlane Funerary rituals show us what people thought about mortality; how they felt about loss; what they believed came next. From Roman cremations and graveside feasts, to deviant burials with heads rearranged, from richly furnished Anglo Saxon graves to the first Christian burial grounds in Wales, Buried provides an alternative history of the first millennium in Britain. As she did with her pre-history of Britain in Ancestors, Professor Alice Roberts combines archaeological finds with cutting-edge DNA research and written history to shed fresh light on how people lived: by examining the stories of the dead.
We start in Roman Britain, with the cremated remains in a rectangular lead canister with a “pipe” to the surface in a stone-lined chamber at Caerleon. The remains were discovered in the 1920’s, but Roberts re-examines them telling the story of the probable funerary rites.
We then move to Yewden Roman Villa and the potentially upsetting discovery of evidence of obstetric surgery for an obstructed labour (or perhaps abortion) on a 36-37 week old foetus. Roberts discusses increased infant mortality in non-modern, first world locations and different burial practices for infants.
This is followed by discussion of decapitated burials, starting with an example of seventeen decapitated Roman period burials at Great Whelnetham cemetery, near Bury St Edmunds, which distinguishes between victims of beheadings and post-mortem decapitations. Roberts emphasises that there can be no ‘one size fits all’ approach to the post-mortem decapitations, discussing possible fear of revenants, the ‘evil dead’, but also considering the idea that that some may be slaves.
Although this may all sound very “dry” and academic, Roberts is able to make me empathise with the possible fates of the individuals of whom all that remains are these bones, and tentatively suggest the non-aristocratic lives they may represent. The lack of evidence always means that there are no simple answers, just a number of hypotheses, or believable stories.
A metal detectorist located a beautifully designed Byzantine brass bucket at Breamore, Hampshire, and a Time Team archaeological dig then found the remains of an early Anglo-Saxon cemetery. Roberts looks at whether the findings from the site might indicate a warriors’ burial ground, a (Justinian) plague cemetery or perhaps a cemetery from a battle.
Chapter 5 starts with a description of the Staffordshire Hoard buried in the mid-seventh century - “there's about 4 kilograms of gold in the hoard, 1.7 kilograms of silver and thousands of garnets. It's the largest hoard in Europe, let alone Britain.”
However, Roberts makes the point that whilst rich in artefacts, hoards have no archaeological context, so she goes on to discuss the review of artefacts found at a large Anglo-Saxon cemetery at the Meads, northwest of Sittingbourne in Kent amongst other sites.
Chapter 6 discusses skeletons found in a ditch at Llanbedrgoch on Anglesey, were they Welsh defenders of the site, captured Viking raiders, or slaves. Again there are no definitive answers, just possibilities that may make greater sense given the other material finds at the site.
Chapter 7 discusses the “Birth of Churchyards”:
Churchyards in the popular imagination seem like obvious, natural places to find graves, but they only start to appear in Britain from the sixth century as part of the culture of Christianity. None of the Roman or early Anglo-Saxon burials we've paused to look at on this journey through the first millennium took place inside settlements (apart from those infant burials). And yet, by the ninth century, pretty much everyone living in what had once been the Roman Empire - and where the Roman religion had taken root was buried in a church graveyard. The preceding centuries saw a gradual transformation of burial practices, as former out-of-town cemeteries fell into disuse, and churchyards became the final destination of choice.
Chapter 8 looks at how archaeological DNA analysis (aDNA) is allowing archaeologists to ask and sometimes answer questions that couldn’t previously have been answered with such certainty:
This is the archaeological culture war: in one corner, culture-history, massive migrations and population replacement; in the other, cultural diffusion, a dissemination of ideas while the population stays put. Like any culture war, it's much too polarised and too clearly defined. History - people - are much messier than that. The answers are much more likely to lie somewhere in the middle. They sure as hell won't be simple - and each 'event' would also have been different and unique. And we're only just starting to get the data we need to understand these transitions.
Roberts discusses these ideas, but doesn’t yet have genomic results to help push the discussion further with empirical data, so that although interesting, this chapter rehashed ideas that I have read about in other recent books about this period.
In the first chapter Roberts includes some thoughts about belief systems and burial rites relevant to the cremated bones of a Roman burial, but she pushes her personal views just a little too much in my opinion for what is otherwise a relatively objective analysis, which I felt was a disappointment, although I don’t personally disagree with the views she expresses.