22. Speaking of the dead

22. Speaking of the dead. Returning to funerary customs and grave goods from late Roman military burials

Session Chairs: Vince Van Thienen & Sofie Vanhoutte
Affiliation: Ghent University, Belgium
Affiliation of co-organiser: Flanders Heritage Agency / Ghent University, Belgium

Session Abstract: Fifty years after the publication of the late Roman graveyard at the Oudenburg fort by Mertens & Van Impe (1971), and nearly as long since the influential publication by Böhme (1974) on Germanic grave goods in the Late Roman period, it is time to reassess our ideas of late Roman burial customs, grave goods and their chronology (period c. AD 250-450).

During the past half century, our understanding of the Late Roman period has developed significantly, mainly because of the increasing archaeological evidence of its military population. Nevertheless, many of the chronologies for grave goods published in the 1970s are still used as standard references to date late Roman artefacts and their contexts. However, many of these typo-chronologies and interpretations have become outdated, often tied up in biases based on circular reasoning related to traditional notions of the Germanic immigration.

Since the 1970s and ’80s burial archaeology has gradually become less prominent, allowing outdated knowledge to persist into the present-day identification and dating of late Roman military burials (cf. cremation versus inhumation; the uncritical use of numismatic evidence; the correlation between weapons as grave goods and Germanic people). Fortunately, recent studies and techniques can bring new data to the table and allow us to take a fresh look on the identity of late Roman soldiers at the frontiers (e.g. isotopes and DNA) that can be paired with a reinvestigation of the material culture and burial customs.

Given that the most prominent late Roman burials are military graveyards and that they serve as a basis for much of the material chronologies (e.g. Krefeld-Gellep), a re-evaluation of them would not only adjust our understanding of the late Roman military communities at the frontiers, but would also have implications for the dating and interpreting of many late Roman (military) sites across the Empire.

Time Presenter (s) Presentation


10.50 Vince van Thienen Introduction
11.10 Sofie Vanhoutte The late Roman coastal fort at Oudenburg (Belgium): from reassessment of new and old burial data towards new ideas on the chronology, identity, and lifestyle of a late Roman military community
11.30 Olivier Vrielynck Late Roman graves of the Vieuxville cemetery (province of Liege, Belgium)
11.50 Bernarda Županek Late Roman funerary customs and grave goods on the burial ground at Kozolec (Emona/Ljubljana, Slovenia)


13.30 Rebecca Nashan Challenging late antique chronology – graves as indicators of continuity
13.50 Julie Flahaut The late Roman grave of the children of the triarch Domitianus at Boulogne-sur-Mer: A re- interpretation
14.10 Benjamin Hamm Late Roman military burial revisited –Changing communication and media in burials of military men in Late Antiquity
14.30 Irene Bavuso Weapons, soldiers and power across the litus saxonicum: the transformations of a frontier landscape at the end of Late Antiquity


15.20 James Dodd Foederati and the villa landscape? small-scale burials in Germania Secunda in Late Antiquity
15.40 Steven Vandewal Solitary and deviant burials in late Antique Tongeren
16.10 Stefan Ardeleanu Commemorative rituals at tombs from the Late Antique Rhine and Danube provinces – some new perspectives
16.30 Panel Discussion

The late Roman coastal fort at Oudenburg (Belgium): from reassessment of new and old burial data towards new ideas on the chronology, identity, and lifestyle of a late Roman military community
Sofie Vanhoutte, Flanders Heritage Agency / Ghent University, Belgium

Late Roman graves of the Vieuxville cemetery (province of Liege, Belgium)
Olivier Vrielynck, Service public de Wallonie – Agence wallonne du Patrimoine, Fabienne Vilvorder, Laurent Verslype, Université catholique de Louvain – Centre de recherche d’archéologie nationale, Christian Lauwers, Société royale de Numismatique de Belgique

The Late Roman and Merovingian site of Vieuxville is famous for having yielded a funerary assemblage attributed to the first half of the 5th century, discovered fortuitously in 1938 and published in 1956 (BREUER & ROOSENS, 1956). The presence of coins of Constantine III and Jovin have made this ensemble a regularly cited reference since. The site also gave its name to a particular type of belt (BÖHME, 1974, p. 61). Other objects from the 1938 find were published in 1982 (VAN OSSEL, 1982). Systematic excavations carried out from 1980 to 1985 shed light on the context of this discovery. They showed that the material published in 1956 did not come from an isolated grave, but from several burials. These tombs belong to a vast cemetery of about 190 tombs used from the beginning of the 5th century to the middle of the 7th century (e.g. ALÉNUS-LECERF, 1986). These excavations have only recently been studied in detail. Despite the various degradations it has suffered over time, the Vieuxville cemetery has proved to be exceptional for the chronology of 5th century burials in northern Gaul, for several reasons. Firstly, most of the graves yielded material. Secondly, the necropolis developed regularly and continuously from north-west to south-east. Finally, several graves from the first half of the 5th century have been dated by coins, which makes it possible to set some reliable chronological markers. In particular, the phase of the ‘simple’ belts, dated approximately to the middle third of the 5th century, is particularly well represented, with some thirty tombs, eight of which yielded this type of belt. The transitions from this phase to the Kerbschnittverzierte Gurtelgarnituren phase that preceded it, and to the so-called ‘Childeric horizon’ that succeeded it, are clearly discernible. Bibliography: ALÉNUS-LECERF J., 1986. Le cimetière de Vieuxville : quelques considérations préliminaires. In : OTTE M. & WILLEMS J. (éd.), La civilisation mérovingienne dans le bassin mosan. Actes du colloque international d’Amay-Liège (22-24 août 1985), Liège (Études et Recherches archéologiques de l’Université de Liège, 22), p. 181-193. BREUER J. & ROOSENS H., 1956. Le cimetière franc de Haillot, Annales de la Société archéologique de Namur, 48, p. 171-376 (= Archaeologia Belgica, 34, 1957). BÖHME H.W., 1974. Germanische Grabfunde des 4 bis 5. Jahrhunderts zwischen unterer Elbe und Loire. Studien zur Chronologie und Bewölkerungsgeschichte, München (Münchner Beiträge zur Vor- und Frühgeschichte, 19/1-2). VAN OSSEL P., 1982. Quelques trouvailles inédites provenant de la nécropole de Vieuxville. In : Varia III, Bruxelles (Archaeologia Belgica, 246), p. 5-15.

Late Roman funerary customs and grave goods on the burial ground at Kozolec (Emona/Ljubljana, Slovenia)
Bernarda Županek, Museum and Galleries of Ljubljana, Špela Karo, Mateja Ravnik, Institute for the Protection of Cultural Heritage of Slovenia, Alenka Miškec, National Museum of Slovenia, Gojko Tica, Tica Sistem d.o.o.

Archaeological investigations in the northern part of Ljubljana have uncovered part of the northern cemetery of the Roman colony of Emona at the Kozolec site. This well-researched Roman city, which lies below the centre of Ljubljana, was constructed at the beginning of the 1st century AD. However, the date of its abandonment is difficult to confirm, as different views on the end of Emona are placing it roughly between the mid-5th and mid-6th century. Throughout its existence, Emona had three extensive cemeteries that lined its main arteries, as was customary in the Roman world. Of these, most is known on the northern cemetery, where the total number of graves excavated thus far exceeds 3000. Investigations at the Kozolec site revealed a part of the cemetery with 61 graves, 16 of which were early cremations, and another 45 inhumations from the 2nd century onwards, most of them dating from the 4th to the middle of the 5th century. In this paper we focus on the later burials and the individuals buried in them. They include 19 male, 14 female and 10 children’s graves, while two burials remain undetermined. Although the burial rite does not differ significantly between individuals, the differences in attire and other accessories suggest that a certain number of buried males may have been soldiers and foreigners. According to the objects of attire they could have been members of late Roman military units as well as foreigners of Germanic and/or Sarmatic origin. This is consistent with the observation that in the Late Roman period the wider area of Emona was a military zone established around the Claustra Alpium Iuliarum, and with the observation that the density of military material from the wider area is very similar to that from the border areas of the Rhine and Danube.

Challenging late antique chronology – graves as indicators of continuity
Rebecca Nashan, Newcastle University

The research perspective on Late Antiquity is gradually changing due to the growing archaeological knowledge and the prevailing zeitgeist. There is a clear shift away from the concept of omnipresent decline towards the idea of transformation and continuity. However, there is a lack of a robust chronology of material culture that can substantiate this change in the dating of finds and find complexes. In the course of my doctoral thesis, I am evaluating hitherto unpublished and published material evidence from 4th and 5th century Belgian, French and German burial sites in a transnational study. A large-scale database will not only facilitate the reappraisal of dating sources but also clarify possible patterns in burial customs and the composition of grave goods. This paper exemplifies the problematic nature of established typo-chronologies on the basis of so-called key finds from selected, newly researched graves. Due to the absence of more reliable sources, dating approaches emerged at this research stage that are influenced by a historical narrative generated from ancient written sources. These chronological fixed points are still replicated by less critical citation and lead to circular arguments and a pronounced early dating of material culture. The result is a hiatus in the settlement landscape at the beginning of the 5th century AD. Consequently, this creates a distorted perspective on Late Antiquity and limits the interpretation potential of further research questions on topics such as border communities and cultures, ethnicity, identity and religion.

The late Roman grave of the children of the triarch Domitianus at Boulogne-sur-Mer: A re- interpretation
Julie Flahaut, Olivier Blamangin, INRAP, Angélique Demon, Service archéologique de Boulogne-sur-Mer, Christine Hoët Van Cauwenberghe, université de Lille

Excavations at Boulogne-sur-Mer began during the 16th century, but it was really during the 19th century that the Late Antique cemeteries of this city were systematically explored. After a gap of a century, several new excavations have added to our understanding of this topic, in particular those of 1973 and two intervention in advance of development in 2007 and 2008.  They are mainly located between Vieil-Âtre/Val-Saint-Martin and Bréquerecque, at the known limits of the occupation on the Gesoriacum-Bononia site. The tombs excavated at Vieil-Âtre in 1888-1889 by Jean-Baptiste Lelaurain yielded a remarkable assemblage: lead sarcophagi, complete funerary monuments, and extremely well-preserved furnishings including an exceptional collection of glassware, ceramics, pewter objects and “black rocks” (shale, jet). Twenty-nine burials have been reconstructed thanks to the surviving documentation (museum catalogues and newspaper articles for instance). Among them, one funerary group attracts our attention in particular, that of the children of the triarch Domitianus, discovered on 27 October 1888. This is the only intact funerary monument in Boulogne-sur-Mer with an explicitly military inscription (CIL, XIII, 3545) associated with grave furniture. Few tombs from Late Antiquity have been identified as ‘military’ in Boulogne-sur-Mer. Claude Seillier made an inventory in 1995 based on the 19th century publications and certain objects held in museum collections in Boulogne-sur-Mer and Oxford. He was particularly interested in the metal objects such as belt fittings and cruciform fibulae found at Vieil-Âtre and Bréquerecque. The study of the funerary ensemble of the children of the triarch Domitianus, belonging to the classis britannica, gives us the opportunity to propose a global and contextualised re-reading of an ancient discovery, relatively well documented. Through this burial, it is possible to propose a new interpretation of this group, supported by the furniture and the historiography of its discovery, and thus to shed new light on the historical, military and archaeological context of the site of Boulogne-sur-Mer in the second half of the 3rd century.

Late Roman military burial revisited –Changing communication and media in burials of military men in Late Antiquity
Benjamin Hamm, Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg, Institut für Archäologische Wissenschaften, Abt. Ur- und Frühgeschichtliche Archäologie und Archäologie des Mittelalters

The paper focuses on a central subject of late Roman and Early Medieval archaeology: a small group of burials with weapons and military equipment of the 4th and 5th centuries. It has been suggested to represent burials of peoples of non-roman origin within the empire, and to be evidence of the barbarisation of Rome’s legions. Those burials were falsely considered as a homogenous group. A study based on 700 burials from the Roman West, examined by the author as his PhD-thesis, follows new perspectives by supra-regional comparison of late Roman “weapon-burial-rite”. Although burials with weapons and military equipment represent only a small part of Late Antique burial culture, they show clearly – like under a burning glass – fundamental changes in the rhetoric of burials of the last two centuries of the Western empire. During the 4th century, with an intact army and firm emperorship, military glory is reserved for members of the army and the Emperor himself. Gravestones showing soldiers in their military costume and objects of a specific habitus militaris dominate the burials of military men and can be found all over the Empire. In addition to this “official” and imperial type of military burial, graves with potential weapons, such as axes or spears, are also regarded as burials of military men by scholars in the past. But such a weapon didn’t make a buried person automatically a soldier or warrior, but perhaps a hunter or farmer. This changed in the course of the 5th century. Gravestones and specific items of military garment of the professional imperial army disappeared from the archaeological record. They became obsolete as prestigious goods and were replaced in burial by sets of weapons of war: sword, shield and lances. That created new images and new perspectives used to impress the audience during burial. Up to the early 5th century military objects in the graves had been a class specific phenomenon identifying men with a professional attitude to warfare, like soldiers of the legions. A hundred years later, one of two male burials in central and north-western Europe contained weapons; so the potential of violence in post-roman societies seems to rise, and more and more people were able or forced to participate in warfare. Does this development indicate an overall change of mindset in times of crisis? Is the high estimation of martial prowess, and the production of images of strong men a phenomenon of the northern regions of the late Roman Empire, or can we see this process in other regions too? Nevertheless, military equipment in late antique burials represents changing political, social and military contexts and display within the late empire – instead of Germanic groups.

Weapons, soldiers and power across the litus saxonicum: the transformations of a frontier landscape at the end of Late Antiquity
Irene Bavuso, Centre for Urban Network Evolutions (UrbNet), Aarhus University

This contribution addresses the possible settlement of military communities in strategic coastal locations in Britain and Gaul at the end of Late Antiquity. After the decay of the litus saxonicum, some of the fortifications continued to have a role in the landscape of settlement and power. Many of the sites mentioned in the Notitia Dignitatum (or their surrounding territory) remained focal areas. A continuous focal role is visible at Portchester in Hampshire, and Dover and Lympne/Lyminge, Kent. These three cases are also comparable at a community level: high status presence is attested by fifth- and sixth-century archaeology (though for Portchester our evidence is mostly later), and by later mentions of monasteries and kings. Many parts of the litus, moreover, experienced a comparable continuity of inclusion in long-distance networks. Military presence across these coastal areas after Late Antiquity has been suggested based on the large quantities of weapons in burials. Key cases are Dover and Sarre (late fifth-seventh century cemetery), which lay close to the Roman forts at Reculver and Richborough and was associated with political power. In France, an important example is Nouvion-en-Ponthieu (fourth-seventh century). This hypothesis has wide implications for understanding post-Roman political control and organisation: since many of these sites lay close to centres of power, it has been stressed that these may have been royal soldiers. Military activity is still proposed by part of the scholarship, although the identification of military communities from grave goods is highly problematic. Yet the picture offered by these burials – this paper argues – should be related to the continuous strategic importance of these areas. By comparing sites from both Britain and Gaul, this paper seeks to evaluate common traits and discrepancies within the transformations of a frontier landscape (and of the communities that lived in it) at the end of Late Antiquity.

Foederati and the villa landscape? small-scale burials in Germania Secunda in Late Antiquity
James Dodd, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

The end of the villa landscape in the north-western Roman provinces is characterized by significant transformation. One facet is the use of the villa complex and its surrounding area for funerary purposes. Traditionally, these burials have been divided into large-scale reuse of sites in the Migration period and small-scale transitional burials. The study of these burials, and their relation to foederati burials and the military community have been neglected. This paper will explore this relationship and assessing where more work is needed to develop a picture of the funerary landscape at the interface between military and civilian in Late Antique Germania Secunda.

Solitary and deviant burials in late Antique Tongeren
Steven Vandewal, City of Tongeren

Archaeological traces prove that in the early fifth century events occurred that influenced the evolution of Tongeren (Atuatuca Tungrorum) as a town greatly. Not only did the number of archaeological traces decrease, there was also, for example, a sharp decline in the number of burials in the late Roman cemeteries around the town (although these presumably remained in partial use until the seventh century). Contrary to what has been assumed up to now, namely that the city was virtually deserted in the fifth century, there are indications to the contrary. In this, Tongeren follows a historiographical discussion – about continuity of habitation or not – which has already taken place in several other locations in northern Gaul and Britannia. To persist that Tongeren was a deserted place in the fifth and sixth centuries, however, can no longer be maintained. One of the elements that could lead to a new insight into the development of the town or its habitation during this period are the so-presumed ‘solitary’ burials, found in the town or in the immediate vicinity of the late Roman town wall. What are considered solitary burials seem rather to form part of a pattern. Haphazardly found inhumations appear to be intentional burials, oriented towards certain Roman buildings or in the vicinity of locations that had a certain symbolism. Apart from being some of the few traces from that chaotic fifth century, these burials give a clue as how the capital of the civitas Tungrorum evolved during the early Middle Ages.

Commemorative rituals at tombs from the Late Antique Rhine and Danube provinces – some new perspectives
Stefan Ardeleanu, University of Hamburg, RomanIslam Center

Late Antique funerary rituals have received much interest since the beginnings of archaeology in the frontier provinces. They are mostly explained by evidence from the tombs themselves (body treatment, burial goods, faunal/botanical residues). Rituals performed at tombs after their sealing, however, are often neglected for several reasons. Original above-ground surfaces around tombs are mostly disturbed. Surface finds present worse preservation chances than burial objects and have therefore only rarely been documented. Finally, it is generally accepted that drinking and dining rituals declined with the spread of Christianity. Harsh critique against such ‘pagan rites’ by Late Antique clerics seems to confirm this point. Archaeological evidence, however, shows that such rituals were still multi-facetted and widespread throughout the Late Roman world as far as (and even beyond) its frontiers. My paper seeks to underline this variability of Late Antique commemorative rituals at tombs from the Rhine/Danube frontiers (4th–7th c. AD). I will discuss examples of ceramic/glass finds and animal/plant remains from surface contexts around tombs, some of which might be associated to post-mortem rituals of military societies (Xanten, Cologne, Gelduba, Ságvar). I will reevaluate the materiality of epitaphs, since some of them show evidence for ritual use (libation/offering holes, waterproof surfaces). This new approach is combined with examples of possible dining installations from funerary spaces (mensae in Bonna, Baudobriga, Sirmium, buildings for collective feasting in Gelduba, Treveris, Sopianae, Serdica, caisson-tables in Treveris) and tomb paintings from frontier sites (Sopianae, Viminacium, Durostorum, Tomis), both suggesting frequent commemorative rituals being performed in/at such tombs. Since similar rituals are attested in all Western provinces, they demonstrate the belonging of the frontier zones to this funerary koiné. Both their popularity in military centers at the Rhine/Danube and military epitaphs seem to show that soldiers took over a key role in their distribution, a hypothesis I shall critically discuss in my paper.