Wednesday, July 2, 2014

York - The Roman Dead

In my recent post on Roman Remains in York I gave you a teasing glance at the inside of the Multangular Tower, once one of the main bastions in the defenses of "Eborucum".  There you saw a bunch of sarcophagi scattered about.

Lets get this straight from the outset, the Romans did not bury their dead inside their cities or forts. This was forbidden by the oldest of their laws and seems to have been a universal dictate. The rare exceptions can safely be assumed to be murder victims such as the body found at Vindolanda a few years back.  So, absent skulduggery*, no dead Romans inside of settled areas.  So what gives?

Just this.  When York was expanding in the 19th century the area outside the old town was being heavily built up.  This is where the numerous Roman cemeteries actually were.  People kept finding sarcophagi.  And giving them to the local Museum.  Some of these were marvelous, finely decorated artifacts.  Most were of the "gee thanks, another sarcophagus" plain variety.  Some of the former were put on display in the Museum or held there in storage.  Most of the latter were left scattered around the Multangular Tower and the adjacent St. Leonard's Hospital.

But apparently in 2011 a decision was made to spread the sarcophagi around a bit.  Oh, we still have some by the Tower:

And in the Museum Gardens:

And a very nice assemblage including three from a disused storage tunnel under the museum.  This bunch has been set up on a former bowling lawn in a pattern felt to be reminiscent of an actual Roman burial site:

There is something fascinating about sarcophagi.  For one thing they are an interesting cultural bridge across a very long stretch of time.  The Romans borrowed the concept from the Egyptians.  And since it was the form of burial in vogue in the Late Empire it got adopted by the early Christian church and carried on into the Middle Ages.

The grouping above has some especially nice specimens.

This one was for Julia Victorina and her 4 year old son Constantius.  It was provided by her husband Septimus Lupianus a veteran centurion of the VI Legion.

A sarcophagus for Aurelius Super, Centurion of the VI Legion.  Provided by his wife.  This one was found near the previous example in a burial ground near Castle Yard.  It is speculated that there was a burial club for Centurions and their families.  Note the two part lid.  Several of the sarcophagi had these and with lines too straight to be mere breaks.  I doubt they would follow our custom of keeping the top part open for viewing at a funeral, but it makes an interesting parallel to modern coffin design.

A rather nice specimen.  The inscription says it was supposed to house a woman named Aelia Severa.  But when it was found it had a male skeleton inside it suggesting reuse.  This is not the original lid, they borrowed one off another sarcophagus in their collection.  The letters DM appear on both top and bottom.  This stands for Dis Manibus.  It translates to "for the Manes".  In Roman theology the spirits of the dead would become Lares if they had been good, or Manes if they had a mixed record.  Bad men became malign spirits called Larvae or Lemures.  Interesting thought number 1: we have adopted these last two names for somewhat unlovable creatures that live in dark places.**  Interesting thought number 2: in the Roman schema it appears you expressed hope for the equivalent of the Christian purgatory rather than heaven!  Perhaps in a society where dead Emperors were often deified it was considered presumptuous to aim for the top spot?

A nice example of the "two part lid".

On a lot of sarcophagi you saw these sets of holes.  Sometimes one, sometimes one on each side. They were used to anchor metal brackets that held the lids on tight.  A lot of these sarcophagi were actually above ground, and one would not want grave goods pilfered.  Or your loved one tossed out to make room for a clandestine burial.

I like sarcophagi.  They are the sort of ancient artifact that we can still relate to.  Their functionality has endured, and has perhaps even influenced the design of our modern day coffins.  They seem to have survived from antiquity in substantial numbers, they are just so darn sturdy.  No doubt quite a few of them around the former Roman Empire are doing duty as a planter, as seen above, or as an animal watering trough in some rustic locale.
* I had always assumed that the term "skulduggery" had something to do with digging up skulls.  Not so at all.  It is a derivation of a fairly modern Scottish word skuldudrie that means adultery.  Who knew?
**This per the late and somewhat opinionated Christian writer Augustine of Hippo.  There are a lot of variations on this general scheme from other writers.

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