On Monday (4th February), there was great excitement at the Trust when an extraordinary bustum or pyre burial was excavated on one of our current sites. Bustum burials are a special kind of burial. They are very rare but we have found several on the garrison site in Colchester in the past few years. What makes this one exceptional is that we found the remains of what seem to be dates and seeds on the pyre. Food remains are unusual in graves because, being organic, they don’t survive under normal circumstances. However, things can be different if they were charred and, in Colchester, we are used to this because the great fire which destroyed the Roman town during the Boudican revolt of AD 60 left us with various sorts of burnt foodstuffs such as grain, figs and dates.
Traces of food and drink remains in Roman-period graves are hard to find even although they must, in many cases, have been placed with the dead person either in the grave if the body was to be buried or on the pyre if the body was to be burnt. Most cremations took place away from the burial grounds (at least in Colchester, as far as we can tell). At the end of the process, the burnt bones were all reduced to small pieces. They were then hand-picked from the ashes and buried in a container (usually a pot) or simply placed in a little pile in a hole in the ground. Occasionally, objects such as melted glass phials or clay lamps were also placed in the pots but, generally, the contents are fairly ‘clean’ and consist of just fragments of burnt bone. The bustum-type burial was different and presents archaeologists with an opportunity to find those elusive food remains.
A bustum burial is one where the remains of the body were left undisturbed in the ashes of the funeral pyre. The process was a clever one, whereby a body could be cremated and buried in a pit without the need to pick out the dead person’s burnt bones. This was achieved by building the pyre over a shallow pit that was, in effect, to double up as a grave. The pit was large enough to catch the ashes and burnt bones as the pyre was burning. By the time the flames had died down (or more likely been dowsed with wine or water), the volume of the pyre and the body on it had reduced to the point where most of the debris had dropped into the pit. It would then have been a simple matter to fill in the pit with soil and – hey presto – job done! The reason why we find these bustum burials in cemetery areas is because they were essentially mechanisms for burying the dead person’s remains. Hence they had to be sited in cemeteries. These bustum burials are very rare. Most bodies which were cremated must have been burnt elsewhere. The human bones in bustum burials are a bit higgledy-piggledy, but there is an order in that the bones from the head lie at one end, the bones from the legs lie at the other, the bones from the ribs and spine lie in the middle, and so on.
So you can see why the bustum burial offers the archaeologist possibilities not offered by other burial techniques. It is because lots of the debris produced by the cremation process survive in situ in the grave, not just cremated bones and a few selected objects. In the case of this recent find, dates and other foodstuffs must have been placed or thrown on to the pyre. They could not have been on it very long otherwise they would have been completely incinerated, so they must have been put on the pyre as it was dying down or just before the flames were dowsed. The ?dates and seeds turned to charcoal in the heat so that their shape was perfectly preserved and they could survive for 1,800 years before their discovery this week.
A picture (above), taken from directly above the remains of the bustum burial (by Dr Tim Dennis and published here with his kind permission) shows burnt debris on the bottom of the pit. Most of the pit has been cut away horizontally, but the sides of the pit are red because they have been burnt by the heat of the pyre. The depressions in the corner of the bustum pit show that vertical posts were placed in its corners. These suggest that the pyre was carefully constructed and included these posts to give it height and make it well contained over the pit. The dates and seeds lie near the middle of the pit but they are hard to see at this scale.
Two close-up images (below) give a better idea of what they looked like in the ground. The organic remains will, in due course, be lifted, cleaned and identified by a specialist in organic remains of this sort. (The 20p piece has been added for scale.)