Funeral and burial rituals in Roman London

Corpses were either buried or cremated during the Roman period. The way that the population of Londinium buried their dead changed over time. Burials and cremations are found across the East London cemetery from the whole period.

Burials were sometimes marked by tombstones, and some of these had inscriptions that gave information about the dead person, such as name, age, family and sometimes, what they did for a living. A picture of the wealthier part of the population of Londinium can be built up from these inscriptions – since most people buried in the cemeteries probably couldn’t afford to be remembered with a tombstone.

Antiquarians (people who collected and recorded archaeology and history in the past) began to write down their observations of burials and tombstones they found in the area east of the City wall from the 16th century.

The area where burials have been found has been called a cemetery, although archaeologists are still not completely sure if all the burials are part of one area.

There is evidence for lots of different types of burial rite within the cemetery. There is a lot of evidence for where bodies were burnt, called funeral pyres which are not often found on other British sites. About half of all the cremations were buried in urns – the rest may have been buried as a pile of ashes and bone, or placed in containers made out of materials such as straw, wood or leather, that have not survived well.

Where the dead bodies were buried rather than burnt, they were usually laid out on their back, and 80% were buried in wooden coffins. A small number of people were buried in other types of containers such as lead coffins. Many people were not buried in anything. Perhaps they were wrapped in cloth or blankets, or buried in straw or wooden containers that have decayed.

Plenty of evidence for grave goods has been discovered in the cemetery. Lots of artefacts such as pots, coins, glass vessels and jewellery, animal bones and plant remains have been found with the burials or mixed up into the surrounding soil. About a fifth of all the known burials from the cemetery have some kind of grave goods that have survived. Many may have been buried with items that have rotted away or been removed during later disturbance. Buring the bodies with jewellery or pottery during cremation may have destroyed the grave goods that accompanied some burials completely.

Perhaps those people buried with or without grave goods had different religious beliefs. Perhaps the funeral procession was more important to this group of people than being buried with objects. Perhaps a lot of poor people were buried in the eastern cemetery, and only the richest members of the population could afford to bury things in their graves. As we excavate the burials at Prescot Street, we may be able to find out more about why people chose to be buried in certain ways.