The importance of Bainesse Cemetery to our understanding of Roman burial

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Greg Speed

Our Senior Project Officer, Greg, is back again this week to answer another question about the A1 scheme investigations that NAA undertook...

Q. What is the most important thing that Bainesse Cemetery has revealed about Roman burial in the North?

Compared to the southern half of Roman Britain, relatively few Roman burials have been excavated in the North. However, the excavation at Bainesse Cemetery, located adjacent to a roadside settlement 2km south along Dere Street from the Roman town of Cataractonium, revealed 232 inhumation graves and 17 cremation burials. It represents one of the largest modern investigations of a Roman cemetery undertaken in northern England and has revealed a considerable amount of new information regarding Roman burial practice. 

Only the western (probably ‘back’) edge of the cemetery was excavated (see Figure 1), which occupied part of a large enclosure behind the nearby roadside settlement. The whole area could contain as many as 1000 burials, which would represent an exceptionally large cemetery for this type of settlement!


Figure 1: plan of Bainesse Cemetery.

The cemetery seems to have been a space dedicated to the dead from the outset, with no evidence for other activities taking place. The pottery assemblage found in the grave fills (mostly drinking vessels) was completely different from that associated with surrounding non-cemetery enclosures. Combined with an almost complete absence of animal bones in the grave fills, this suggests that the area was never used for rubbish dumping and that the material found within the graves provides a rare insight into funerary activity taking place on the surface of a Romano-British cemetery. A Roman funeral often included a meal at the graveside, and several festivals were set aside in the Roman calendar for visiting the dead, consuming a meal and leaving food offerings. These would have accumulated over the years and a typical Roman cemetery would have been littered with debris from these events! 

The dateable finds—mostly pottery and jewellery—suggested that the cemetery was only used for perhaps as little as 100–150 years during the 3rd and possibly early 4th century. In contrast, the radiocarbon dating programme, combined with one of the largest Bayesian modelling studies undertaken to date on a Romano-British cemetery, showed that burials were taking place for around three times as long, from the late 1st or early 2nd century through to the mid-late 5th century! This has considerable implications for the chronology of other cemetery sites, where dating has often been based on small numbers of graves containing dateable finds. Radiocarbon dating also served to filter out a Late Anglo-Saxon burial, which may have been coincidentally placed within the area of the disused cemetery. 

The long timespan of Bainesse Cemetery shows that inhumation was the norm throughout the Roman period in the area. The use of cremation, both at Bainesse and other sites excavated as part of the A1 scheme, seems to have been episodic, perhaps resulting from the arrival of groups from outside the area, such as a military unit, who had different funerary traditions.

The radiocarbon programme showed that some practices, such as placing the body in a nailed wooden coffin and burial with hobnailed footwear, continued throughout the use of the cemetery. Other practices were more chronologically restricted. As noted above, the provision of grave goods such as pots and jewellery only seemed to have occurred in the middle of the Roman period, with no early or late examples. Two individuals had been decapitated and two others lay prone in the grave; interestingly, three of these four burials occupied the three stone-lined cists found during the excavation, and these three rites—decapitation, prone burial and cists—may have arrived together as a ‘package’ in the late 4th and early 5th century.

To return to the original question, the results from this site, compared to those from other sites in the Catterick area and further afield, are probably of most significance in demonstrating divisions within Roman society, at least in death. A wide range of funerary traditions was employed across the area and through time, whether cremation or inhumation, provision or absence of various types of grave goods, coffins, footwear etc. The types of burial site also varied, from the large cemetery at Bainesse to smaller cemeteries, groups of ‘back-plot’ burials (possibly representing members of households), and individual rural burials. So far, Bainesse is the only site in the area where burials have been recorded throughout the Roman occupation. Therefore, comparison between contemporary burial sites is hampered for the earlier part of the period. However, from the late 3rd century onwards, we are able to explore wider geographic patterns. Comparing the different areas in the 4th century, we begin to see a picture that might indicate division between a distinct community with its own long-held traditions at Bainesse, and geographic segregation at Cataractonium (at least in in death) between ‘civilian’ back-plot burials in the north-western area and ‘military’ burials in the north-eastern area, each with their own distinct funerary traditions.

You can read more about our findings from the burials across the A1 scheme in our monograph, Death Burial and Identity, which is available to download for free!

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