We know of four main cemeteries in Roman London, which are located on the principle Roman roads leading into the city. The Northern Cemetery was located on Ermine Street, near to Liverpool Street station. In the West, burials were located in the area around Smithfield, and there was a further extensive area of burials in Southwark. The Eastern Cemetery was a large area of perhaps 16 hectares which was used for burials throughout the Roman period.

The history of the discovery of the Eastern Roman Cemetery

The discovery of burials that are attributed to the Eastern Roman Cemetery were recorded from at least the 17th century, but it was not until the second half of the 20th century that the cemetery was really investigated in a systematic and organised way.

The Antiquarians

The earliest antiquarian evidence for burials in the area of the Eastern Cemetery comes from the curate antiquarian John Strype. In his heavily revised edition of John Stow’s Survey of London, he states that building around Goodman’s Fields in about 1678 uncovered ‘vast quantities of urns and other Roman utensils’ (RCHM 1928, 157). ‘Goodman’s Fields’ is a later name for a farm, derived from the lands of the Abbey of St. Clare, which is described in more detail in the Medieval and Post Medieval overviews.

Further antiquarian finds such as the find in 1787 of a green marble inscription “in the tenter ground in Goodman’s Fields”. The inscription was dedicated to Flavius Agricola, surnamed ‘the victorious’, a legionary in the 6th Legion by his wife Albia Faustina.

There were even finds from Prescot Street itself, with two cremation urns recorded as being discovered in 1936 ‘between Prescot Street and Tenter Street’. These are described as a black burnished and a grey ware urn.

Modern Era Excavations

In the past 30 years, excavations have taken place on 12 principle sites in the area of the Eastern Cemetery. These have revealed a huge amount of information about the cemetery, and yet the information we have is just a fragment of the original cemetery itself. These sites throughout the area East of the City of London have revealed some 136 cremation burials, 550 inhumation burials, and a further 165 features that have been identified as disturbed burials missing their human remains.

Excavations at St. Clare Street in 1983 made the surprise discovery of a Roman road and several high status roadside stone-built tombs. This excavation became the first in a series of major digs to reveal parts of the cemetery. Other major sites such as the West Tenter Street site began to indicate the scale and quality of the Roman burials within the cemetery. Other later excavations, such as those at Hooper Street and Mansell Street gave further detail to our knowledge of the layout and chronology of the cemetery.

Layout and Chronology of the Cemetery

The cemetery was in use from the late 1st century until the early 5th century, matching the most commonly accepted dates for the Roman period in Britain. During this period of nearly 400 years, the cemetery changed and developed significantly.

Early Activity

The earliest evidence from the around the Prescot Street site is the division of land by ditches during the first century AD. The evidence indicates that this initial layout followed the same grid as the town itself. Several ditches from c.70-80AD in the area of the cemetery are perhaps indications of plot divisions at this time. This surveyors grid was used as a means of apportioning land either along the lines of ownership or function. Early quarrying has been found in the area of the cemetery and this may have been the original land use associated with these plot divisions.

The Road

The main layout feature within the cemetery is a road running roughly East – West along this grid alignment. The cemetery road was built by the end of the first century AD, probably around 80AD. The road is known from several excavations (notably St. Clare’s Street, Mansell Street and Hooper Street) where short sections of it have been observed. However the road itself remains enigmatic. The road doesn’t really align properly with the gate at Aldgate, raising the issue of how or if it accessed the City itself. The main London to Colchester road lead from Aldgate along the line of modern Whitechapel Road. The alignment of the cemetery road would have lead directly to the amphitheatre at Guildhall if it had extended that far, but it is hard to prove that the road existed along the full length of this route. A further question is exactly where this road leads to. There is no conclusive answer to this question, but it is clear that it was not one of the main arterial routes leading from London to some other town such as Colchester. The discovery of a huge bath house at Shadwell is perhaps the first indication that there is some as yet undiscovered focus of activity to the East.

The Heyday of the Cemetery

During the 2nd, 3rd and 4th centuries, the cemetery continued in intensive use. Literally thousands of Roman Londoners were buried within the cemetery.

The burial plots were defined by ditches during the late first century, and these become crystalised during the second century as these plots demarcate areas within the cemetery. It is hard for us to say exactly what these boundaries represent. For example, these might represent land ownership or family or religious or tribal groupings. It is clear from the excavated evidence such as that from West Tenter Street that these plots did have an influence over the density and type of burials.

The outer limits of the East London Roman cemetery do not yet show from any site excavated – it is only the absence of burials that indicates where the cemetery may stop.

The late 4th Century and beyond

The Romans left Britain in the first decade of the 5th Century. It would be expected that there was a significant breakdown in the social fabric of Londinium in the decades after 407 AD and the withdrawal of the Empire which should be reflected in the use of the cemetery. Throughout the 4th century, arrangements of burials continued as usual, with some trends growing in popularity as others waned. It is difficult to date late Roman burials through pottery, and there is no evidence to suggest that burials stopped at 400 AD, although there is a significant decline in the numbers of burials in the later period. There is no evidence for sudden changes in burial rites or use of plots, which would be expected if the town was suddenly abandoned. Funerary structures continued to be robbed out at the same rate as the preceding centuries. These types of activities would be expected if use of the cemetery was halted by a change in the numbers of people living in the town or if other people had migrated into the area.

Death and Burial

Now that we have a clear chronology and idea of the cemetery layout , we can introduce some of the key aspects of the archaeology of the cemetery.

The Law

According to the Roman Lex Duodecim Tabularum, the Law of the Twelve Tables, burials could not have taken place within the boundary of any settlement anywhere in the Roman Empire.

Burial Types and Rites

The Eastern Cemetery has examples of many different types of burials and burial rites. It contains a really rich diversity of activity that indicates the extent to which Roman culture permitted a wide range of beliefs and ritual practice. The most common funerary rites are cremations buried in urns and supine inhumations. There is good evidence for the use of wooden coffins from many of the burials, through the abundance of nails found in the graves. Generally, burials follow the cemetery alignment, being either roughly East – West or North – South . Roman burial practice is a large topic and is covered in more detail in the article dedicated to Roman Burial Practice.

The Living

The cemetery tells us not only about the people who died and were buried in it, but it can tell us about the living people who brought their dead here and who occupied the city of Londinium. One of the challenges for archaeologists is understanding how the cemetery worked as a functioning area of land. What did the cemetery look like? How was it tended and maintained? Were specific areas of the cemetery used for different activities and if so, what were these activities? How did living people use the cemetery and is there evidence for the living that can be identified from funeral and burial rites visible in the archaeological record?