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Durham University

Department of Archaeology

Research Postgraduates

Publication details for Professor Rebecca Gowland

Thompson, T.J.U., Szigeti, J., Gowland, R.L. & Witcher, R.E. (2016). Death on the frontier: military cremation practices in the north of Roman Britain. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 10: 828-836.

Author(s) from Durham


The study of cremated human remains from archaeological contexts has traditionally been viewed as less valuable than the study of inhumed bodies. However, recent methodological and theoretical developments regarding the taphonomic processes that transform the human body during cremation have highlighted their potential for understanding past cultural and funerary practices. This study combines the first application of spectroscopic with more traditional methods of studying cremated bone to examine Romano-British contexts, with the aim of better understanding funerary practices along the military frontier. Five Romano-British military sites from northern England (Beckfoot, Carlisle, Herd Hill, Lincoln and Malton) were studied, with remains excavated from a range of cinerary urn contexts. Despite the known heterogeneity of the ethnic composition of the Roman army, analyses revealed a surprising consistency with respect to the cremation practice, implying shared knowledge of pyre procedure and, possibly, a prescribed funerary practice amongst military communities in the Roman North. The consistency within these five northern provincial sites in Britain stands in contrast to cremation contexts from Roman sites elsewhere in Europe, as well as other periods of the British past. The associated material culture recovered from these cremation deposits, however, does provide evidence for differences in dress and bodily display. This contrasts with the homogeneity of the cremation technology and highlights the importance of these individualizing features for signalling identity amongst Roman military communities in Britain.