Roman festival of Feralia today, 21st February

Today (21st February) is Feralia, the day of the public festival for celebrating the spirits of the dead in the Roman calendar. It is also the last day of the nine-day festival of Parentalia (13th-21st) to honour dead ancestors. On Feralia, citizens of the Roman empire had to take offerings to the graves and tombs of their relatives, consisting at the least of wreaths, violets, some grains, some salt, and bread soaked in red wine, to appease them and dissuade them from rising up and haunting their living descendants. The descendants would also take funerary picnics to eat while they visited their family burials. On Feralia, to indicate public mourning, it was forbidden to hold marriages or light wedding torches. Any worshipping of the gods was forbidden and temples were closed.

Coincidentally, only last week the Trust sent away the human bone which we excavated at the Butt Road car-park site in late 2012, not far from our building Roman Circus House. Our excavation of the car-park site revealed a large Roman cemetery with some remarkable elements. The site produced a very large number of urned cremation burials and, since 2012, our dedicated volunteers have been excavating the contents of all the cremation urns and washing the fragments of human bone, finds and fragments of pottery from inside the urns. At last, last week, we were ready to deliver all the bone to our human bone specialist, who will study the bone and produce a detailed report for inclusion in our final excavation report.

Some of the remarkable elements of this cemetery were the large number of apparently children’s burials, a rare bustum or pyre burial, and a group of inhumation burials which had been enclosed by a fence. Many of the deceased had been buried with various possessions or the burnt remains of possessions, such as shoes or a hand-mirror or iron tools, as well as food and drink for their journey to the underworld; the foods do not survive in the ground, but their containers do, ie flagons and pots or bowls. On the bustum we uncovered the remains of lentils and peas which had been burnt on the pyre. We have not identified any evidence of the offerings or picnics of the Feralia at the cemetery. However, on another Roman cemetery site nearby, we have found possible evidence of continued feeding of the deceased after burial – an amphora was buried with a cremation urn inside it and, if the amphora was buried with its neck above ground, then a deliberately-created hole in the amphora may have been used by mourners to pour wine into the grave, either for sustenance or as an offering, long after the actual burial. Colchester Castle Museum holds a Roman lead coffin from Colchester which has a length of lead piping soldered on to it, and this may have been used for pouring libations into the coffin after it was buried (a libation was a special offering of wine). The Roman cemetery which we excavated at the Handford House site in Lexden produced several flagons which may have been buried close to the Roman ground surface, and used for the same purpose. Libations were offered to the dead on festival days like the Feralia and on the  deceased’s birthday.

Colchester is one of the most important archaeological sites in the country. Excavations and chance finds show that the Roman walled town was surrrounded by cemeteries, and these demonstrate a wide variety of burial practices which, in turn, indicates a wide variety of people, from different places of origin, with different cultures and different economic status, across several centuries. A burial is also where we can get the closest to the people of Roman Colchester, and get to know a little about individuals and their lives.

The Trust’s report on the Butt Road car-park excavation is in preparation. Read more about Roman funerary practices and cemeteries at Colchester in our booklet Secrets of the grave, our Handford House report and Colchester Archaeological Report 9.