‘Tomb of the falconer?’ from “the Colchester Archaeologist” magazine no 19 in 2006

A spectacular discovery during building works at the Colchester Royal Grammar School revealed the remains of an extraordinary monument to a wealthy citizen of Roman Colchester. The monument incorporated an impressive tower which, in its day, must have been a landmark on the main entrance in and out of the walled town. But the significance of the discovery does not stop here because the cremated remains buried in the monument included bones of perhaps as many as five or even more sparrowhawks. Falconry, or in this case hawking, was traditionally a noble art – a past-time of the powerful and wealthy – but its pursuit in Roman Britain is not yet proven …

Lexden Road is busy at rush hour nowadays, but i t was busy in Roman t i m es t o o . If i t w e r e possible t o strip away t he m o d e r n buildings and travel back almost 2 , 0 0 0 years, one w o u l d see a m a j o r Roman road f r o m Chelmsford a n d London heading for a Roman ‘ s p a g h e t t i j u n c t i o n ‘ somewhere under t h e G r a m m a r School buildings. From t h i s j u n c t i o n , one r o a d h e a d e d i n t o t o wn t h r o u g h t h e Balkerne Gate, and other roads ran off in various d i r e c t i o n s . It w o u l d also be clear t h a t the Roman roads were lined with cemeteries containing spectacular tombs of the wealthiest citizens of R o m a n Colchester.

I n A u g u s t 2 0 0 5 , b u i l d i n g w o r k f o r a new science block at t h e G r a m m a r School revealed t h e well-preserved f o u n d a t i o ns of a n o c t a g o n a l Roman s t r u c t u r e w i t h in a rectangular w a l l e d enclosure. There were seven associated c r e m a t i o n burials, t w o w i t h i n t h e o c t a g o n , f o u r w i t h in t h e walled area, and one o u t s i d e . We have described the structure as a ‘ t e m p l e – t o m b ‘ because i t c o m b i n e s t he f u n c t ion of a small w a l l e d cemetery w i th a g r o u n d – p l a n w h i c h is similar to (but smaller than) the ‘square within a square’ layout of a typical Romano-Celtic temple. Interestingly, another w a l l e d cemetery is recorded a mere 75 metres away, at G u r n e y B e n h am House.

A l t h o u g h the superstructure was missing, t h e size of t h e o c t a g o n f o u n d at i o n suggests a substantial structure above, and one w h i c h was m u c h larger t h an t h e enclosure w a l l . A single course of surviving t u f a stone blocks with an external chamfer show t h a t t h e upper walls were at least p a r t i a l l y b u i l t of t u f a . T u f a is not c o m m o n in Roman b u i l d ings, and t h e fact t h a t i t occurs i n t he t r i u m p h a l arch at Balkerne Gate shows t h a t it may have been reserved for structures which were in some way ‘ s p e c i a l ‘ , such as m o n u m e n t a l tombs. U n l i k e septaria a n d Kentish g r e e n s a nd w h i c h are t h e c ommon e s t stones used f o r b u i l d i n g in Roman Colchester, t u fa can be easily worked and was m u ch better suited f o r o r n a m e n t a l f a c a d e s . Its use i n t h e Royal G r a m m a r School t o mb suggests that the building had been e l a b o r a t e l y f i n i s h e d. The s i t u a t i o n of t h e t o m b i s s i g n i f i c a n t – i t lies on a Roman crossroads, on the south side of t h e main London Road and on t h e west side of a road r u n n i ng south to Gosbecks, with its Roman t e m p l e a n d t h e a t r e . T h e builders of t he t o m b chose a site which was clearly visible f r om various directions, so t h at travellers c o m i n g into t h e Roman t o wn w o u l d be impressed by t h e t o m b a nd w o u l d be r e m i n d e d of t h e person w ho was b u r i e d t h e r e a l o n g w i t h m e m b e r s of his f a m i l y a n d perhaps h o u s e h o l d.

The t e m p l e – t o m b i s i n t e r e s t i n g e n o u gh in its own right, but a study of t he c r e m a t e d bones by faunal remains experts Francesco Boghi and Julie Curl of t h e N o r f o l k A r c h a e o l o g i c a l Unit has uncovered s o m e f a s c i n a t i n g d e t a i l . First, a s i g n i f i c a n t q u a n t i t y of t h e b o n e p l a c ed i n t h e c r e m a t i o n burials i s a n i m a l r a t h er t h a n h u m a n , suggesting that various a n i m a l s were c r e m a t e d a l o n g with t he h u m a n s . T h e r e are t w o levels at w h i ch t h i s can be interpreted: either the a n i m a l s a r e s i m p l y t h e f a v o u r i t e meat of t h e deceased person (most a r e sheep or g o a t ) or t h e bones have a religious or r i t u a l s i g n i f i c a n c e . Second, it is of t he greatest interest t h a t o n e of t h e burials c o n t a i n e d the remains of a female s p a r r o w h a w k and other juvenile bird bones. Curiously, this was not the c e n t r a l burial inside t h e o c t a g o n ( w h i ch c o n t a i n s a single piece of c r e m a t ed h u m a n bone), but was located in t he s o u t h – e a s t e r n part of t h e w a l l e d a r e a , in a l o c a t i o n w h i c h does not a p p e a r t o be p a r t i c u l a r l y special. Nor did the bird bones include t h e c o m p l e t e bodies of t h e birds, but o n l y t h e upper legs. It is not clear what has happened to the lower legs or i n d e e d t h e rest of t h e birds’ carcasses, which must have been disposed of elsewhere. Perhaps the upper legs were seen as particularly s i g n i f i c a n t , a n d f o r t h a t reason were cut off t h e carcasses and cremated along w i t h t h e birds’ owner? T h e inclusion of t h e sparrowhawk with the human remains could suggest that the buried person was a falconer, buried along w i t h his bird(s). T h e juvenile bird bones a r e too poorly preserved to permit certain identification but as far as can be judged, they are consistent with y o u n g falcons. Falconers need to use y o u n g birds to begin t r a i n i n g , so the j u v e n i l e bones may represent juvenile birds raised for t r a i n i n g . The sparrowhawks themselves may be used for c a t c h i n g a variety of prey, mostly other birds, or t h e y m a y be used as decoys to d r i ve o t h er birds i n t o t r a p s.

But t h e r e are a c o u p l e of problems i f we a r e t o suppose t h a t t h e bones indicate t h e burial place of a f a l c o n e r . Firstly t he d e a d person appears to have been f e m a l e and w o m e n are not generally associated w i t h f a l c o n r y . Her gender is i n d i c a t e d by t h e presence i n t h e burnt remains of p a r t of a b o n e pyxis, a t y p e of small container for cosmetics. Moreover, it i s g e n e r a l l y a c c e p t e d t h a t t h e re i s no clear evidence for hawking in B r i t a in before t h e A n g l o – S a x o n period. However, t h e r e have been m a n y f i n d s o f t h e bones of v a r i o u s birds of prey i n this part of B r i t a i n . T h e 1930s Hawkes a nd H u l l ‘ s excavations at Sheepen produced t h e bones o f t h e C o m m o n Buzzard, a nd i n t h e same place Rosalind Niblett exca v a t e d a pit i n 1970 w h i c h c o n t a i n ed bones of t w o w h i t e t a i l e d eagles. These l a r g e birds may simply have been wild a n i m a l s , but t h e r e are also records of smaller f a l c o n s w h i c h are more likely to have been used i n h u n t i n g expeditions. These i n c l u d e other other sparrowhawk bones at Colchester, a n d more recently at Great Holts Farm (Boreham), at G r e s h am Street i n L o n d o n , and n o w at t h e G r a m m a r School. So, hawks were d e f i n i t e l y a r o u n d in south-east Britain in l a t e r Roman Britain, but how did their bones end up in archaeological contexts? They could simply be the r e m a i n s of wild birds some of w h om were included in burials for ritual purposes not clear to us today. The Egyptians sometimes represented the g o d Osiris as a f a l c o n , a n d he was also associated with t h e rebirth of t h e sun e v e r y d a y . For t h a t reason, f a l c o n bones may have had some connotations of  rebirth approp r i ate for a burial. The o t h e r conclusion would be that the f a l c o n s w e r e used f o r h a w k i n g , a n d t h a t t h e Grammar School evidence is h e l p i n g suggest that this sport was practised in later R o m a n B r i t a i n.

With thanks to the Colchester Royal Grammar for funding the investigation, Julie Curl and Francesco Boghi of the Norfolk Archaeological Unit for their analysis of the cremated bone, and Peter Froste for his drawing of a conjectural reconstruction of the tomb.

 

Feature by Philip Crummy of the Trust: from the Colchester Archaeologist magazine, no 19, 2006. Past issues of the magazine are available from the Trust or can be read online at http://cat.essex.ac.uk – this feature can be read online with all its illustrations.

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