Roman cemetery uncovered in Norfolk village
13:38 04 July 2012
For the last 1,800 years, the full scale of the Roman cemetery site in a quiet Norfolk village has remained largely unknown, except for a few isolated finds of human bones.
But now excavation work carried out by Chris Birks Archaeology has revealed the full fascinating contents of one of Norfolk’s largest burial sites in Great Ellingham.
The experienced archaeologist, who has worked in Holland, Germany and France as well as Norfolk, has been leading a team on a four-month excavation project which has uncovered 85 graves believed to date back to 200AD, one of the largest-ever Roman-era finds in the county.
Mr Birks said an archaeological evaluation had been initiated in November following a planning application for a new home close to the site, where human remains had been reported since the 1950s.
A trial trench was dug which showed there were five graves and the cemetery extended on to the planned development site, but as the digging continued, the full extent of the site became apparent.
“Even from the results of the evaluation, we never expected to find 85 burials, the most previously being recorded in Norfolk was about half this amount,” Mr Birks said.
He added each grave contained a skeleton of a Romano-British citizen rather than a Roman arrival, and could have been the cemetery for a poorer rural settlement reliant on farming practices.
One particular feature had been the placing of flints around the skull and in some cases to each side of the pelvis or by the feet, while an iron finger ring and pottery had been found in some of the other graves.
However, Mr Birks said the ring may not necessarily have been a possession, but could have belonged to one of the mourners and been dropped into the grave, accidentally or otherwise.
He said the almost complete lack of any grave goods indicated the people buried there were not wealthy, especially when compared to other nearby burials where many goods had been found.
One skeleton at the Great Ellingham site indicated a decapitation had taken place as the head had been placed close to the feet.
Mr Birks said decapitations were a known feature of Roman burials, but could not say why it had taken place in this instance. One possible explanation could be the person had been murdered or had committed a crime.
He added: “The population represented by this cemetery was most probably a rural settlement reliant on farming practices, though, at present, we don’t know where this settlement was.
“However, it must have been a large, or at least long-lived, settlement given the number of burials we have found in only a small part of the full extent of the cemetery.”
The human remains have been sent off to a human bones expert to determine their age at death and gender, while the iron finger ring, which was corroded but in a stable condition, will be sent to the Castle Museum in Norwich.
Mr Birks said: “It is a very significant find in terms of understanding Roman cemeteries in Norfolk.”