Roman Burials in Tongeren

Atuatuca Tungrorum was the name of the Roman settlement established in Tongeren (FR: Tongres). Ancient funerary practices in the area were recently studied by several of our colleagues. April Pijpelink and colleagues excavated and analyzed several unusual burials at the Beukenbergweg.  Katrien Van de Vijver and colleagues identified perinatal and deviant adult burials within the settlements.

 

April spotlight 2018 home cover

During the Roman Period, it was prohibited to bury their deaths within the boundaries of the settlement. In this time, cremation was the most common burial practice, but during the third century inhumation became more and more common. There is one exception to this rule: infants are frequently found buried (without cremation) within a cremation burial site. It is believed that the small infants were not recognized as individuals and were therefore not cremated. There is also the practical issue, that (small) children are hard to cremate because of the relative high moisture content. Sometimes, the infants are found cremated together with an adult, probably due to the practical reason that the infants burn better in combination with an adult. So when an adult dies and has to be cremated around the time of death of an infant, the cremation of the two individuals is combined.

Recently, remains of cremated infants without the presence of an adult have been identified at a number of Roman burial sites. It is possible that the burial practices varied slightly from an area to another.

 

Excavations of Tongeren Beukenberweg by April Pijpelink

During the excavation in Tongeren at the Beukenbergweg in 2013, the archaeological company ADC ArcheoProjecten found a lot of Roman remains. The site was located on a hill slope, which was challenging for the archaeologists. It eventually became clear that there were several phases in which the site was used. This article discusses the earliest phase of the site (Early Roman period).

 

In Tongeren, the excavations produced a number of deviant discoveries relating to the Roman burial practice. In total a number of 15 individuals were discovered in 12 separate grave pits. All the individuals were inhumated and not cremated, which is itself striking as the burials date to the Early Roman Period in which inhumation is not very common. No cremation burials were found on the site.

The 15 individuals consist exclusively of males and children (including two fetuses) with no females being found at the site. The children are all buried in combination with an adult. The position of a number of the individuals within the graves seem to suggest that they were not carefully placed in the grave. Also the position of the body within the grave varies, with some individuals being buried on their side or supine, but prone burials are also present. Only one individual is buried in a wooden coffin and only one individual seems to be buried in a shroud. Grave goods were only present in two graves (pottery and animal bones).

The most striking burial is that of an adult male and two children. The man (aged about 40-48 years old) was buried prone, with his arms in front of his chest and his legs spread. Between the legs of the adult, lay the oldest child (about 4-6 years old) on its right side with its arms in front of its chest and with the left arm underneath the adult. Child number two (about 2-4 years old) was also lying on its right side with slightly bended legs. The left arm was holding the right leg of the adult. These multiple burials suggest a simultaneous death of the buried individuals.

Most burials have been found in the natural ground, but one half individual has been found in the filling of a well. 

 

Fifteen individuals were found during the excavation of which 10 individuals - all males - are adults and 5 individuals are children. The age at death of the adults varied between 20-40 to 60-66 years old, with an average age at death of 41.1 years, which is relatively old for the Roman period. The age at death of the children varied from a 5-7 month old fetus to a 12-15 year old child. 

The stature of the adults varies between 161.4-174.2 cm, with an average of 169.1 cm (methods: Trotter). Unfortunately, as most of the individuals were cremated in the Roman period, there is little evidence available to use as comparison of height.  However, considering the period, the average stature seems to be what one would expect or slightly above average.

Pathological conditions mostly consist of healed trauma (5 individuals), especially of the clavicle. There are also some degenerative joint diseases found. Five individuals showed signs of degenerative changes in the vertebral column and in the shoulder joint for one individual (probably as a result of the broken clavicle). One individual had slight periostitis in one leg, which is probably the result of an infection from a local injury. Two individuals showed an anomaly, namely a sutura metopica (on the frontal bone).

The dentition of the adults shows slight to mild calculus and alveolar atrophy. Five individuals out of six also present slight periodontitis. Four individuals have ante mortem tooth loss, from which one individual has as much as 12 dental elements lost before death. Two individuals have caries and one individual has a fistula. Enamel defects have not been found, which means that the individuals have had enough nutrients during their youth.

 

The excavated human remains at Tongeren Beukenbergweg differ in almost every respect from a normal burial ground in the Roman Age. The individuals seem to have had a good life with no or no significant nutrient deficiencies. The degenerative joint changes might be a sign of heavy labor, but given the relatively old age at death, these pathologies seem to be normal. The number of healed trauma is however striking, and archaeologically there does not seem to be an explanation for this. There are no signs of violent death, but the multiple burials seem to indicate that at least some individuals have died simultaneously. One could argue that infectious  diseases could be the cause of their deaths, certainly because a great part of the individuals consist of children and ‘elderly’ (at least for the Roman age), but in case of an epidemic there would probably have been more than 15 individuals buried at this site, and the multiple burials might have contained more than three individuals. The children would probably also have showed at least some signs of an infection. Then, there is also the lack of women. Given the presence of fetuses, there must have been women around, but there is no apparent explanation for the lack of women.

The inconsistency of burial practice remains also a mystery. It might be possible that the individuals buried here were part of a cult or some predecessor of a monastery of some kind, taking care of children (maybe orphans) or sick children, which could explain a life of enough nutrients, the lack of women, the relative old age and the unusual burial practices. But that still does not explain the relative high occurrence of healed trauma, absence of deficiency and infections among the children, the apparent simultaneous deaths and the incomplete burials. So far, the identity of the individuals buried at Tongeren Beukenbergweg remains a mystery.

 

For now, it is only possible to conclude that the burial practices shown at this site are in almost every way different from what we know about Roman burial practices. What this means and the identity of the diseased individuals remains unclear.

Deviant burial in Roman Tongeren by Katrien Van de Vijver & colleagues

Excavations carried out in Tongeren (Belgium) in 2014 showed human remains of several individuals inside the Roman settlement of Atuatuca Tungrorum: perinates and adults.

At least three perinatal skeletons were found along house foundations or between structures. According to diaphyseal length, these perinates were about 36 to 40 weeks old of gestation at the moment of their death. Radiocarbon dates them around early 1st to early 3rd centuries. Although Romans did not bury their dead inside the settlements, the burial of perinatal individuals close to the house was a common practice.

Besides, a minimum number of four adult males were also recognised in the settlement (a moat, a ditch, a demolished structure). Radiocarbon dating puts them in different living periods of the settlement. For Roman funerary practices (which did not include burying inside the settlements), these burials can be classified as deviant. Such non-normative burials are not rare, even for Tongeren.

A primary deposition, which dates back to the late 4th to early 6th centuries AD, was found inside a moat. This skeleton was lying down prone, with the right arm extended above the head. He presented minor enthesopathies and Schmorl’s nodes. In the same moat, a cranial vault and a mandible were found and dated by radiocarbon around late 3rd to late 4th centuries. It presented an oval penetrating fracture in the left parietal that might be peri-mortem. The bevelling observed suggests a postero-lateral direction of the force. No healing was identified, so this violent injury was likely to be lethal. Several post-cranial adult remains - representing a disturbed or secondary deposition - were found in a ditch, and dated to the late 4th to early 6th centuries. The bones present a few fractures and some degenerative joint changes. The last individual appeared  in a demolished hypocastum (i.e. underfloor heating) by its sole cranial vault. Changes in the frontal sinuses indicate sinusitis.

The prone deposition (and its careless position) is unusual but no direct explanations can be outlined from the remains. This kind of burials in this period are often in relation with outcasts and individuals with liminal status, and also sometimes associated with revenants.

As to isolated crania, they are often associated with ritual or decapitation, although the studied crania showed no indications for decapitation, as they were incomplete. They probably result from secondary depositions.

Radiocarbon dating correlates well with the Germanic migrations. This hypothesis is supported by the evidence of violence identified on the fragmented cranium in the moat. Other motives for deviant burials are possible. Isotopic and aDNA analyses may help understand such non-normative tombs.

 

 

Sources:

Veldman H., Geerts R., Hazen P. et Van der Velde H., (dir.) 2012. Aan de rand van de Romeinse stad: Atuatuca Tungrorum. Een archeologische opgraving aan de Beukenbergweg in Tongeren (ADC monografie 16).

Van de Vijver K., et De Winter N. 2017. Deviant Burial in Roman Tongeren, Belgium, Poster on Researchgate.com.

physical anthropology trauma deviant burials isolated crania