Finding the forgotten: Hadrian’s Wall Dig uncovers ancient cremation cemetery.

Magna News | 4th July 2024

The five-year Magna Project excavations, being undertaken by the Vindolanda Trust continues to unearth surprises. The team of archaeologists, joined by volunteers who come for two-week sessions on the dig have been breaking new ground at a site which had seen no previous modern excavation.  The focus area for the dig this year is a section of the vallum, the name given to the Wall’s wide and deep southern ditch.

Group of people excavating at archaeological site in a field
Period 5 team 2024 digging the vallum

The team were delighted when an unexpected discovery was made while working on the northern mound of this ditch. Here the Romans had cut into their own defences to place a cremation cemetery. Seven cremations were unearthed, alongside a larger ash-filled pit. This is the first time that work on the vallum, which stretches for 74 Roman miles, has uncovered burials. Unlike many cremation cemeteries, here none of the remains were contained within urns. The shape of the deposits within the soil; each set of cremated remains being in a defined cluster with a rounded outline, indicates they hadn’t been placed directly in the ground in organic containers which no longer survived. Along with the human bones, cremated animal bones have also been identified from the burials, suggesting that they have been burnt on the pyre, perhaps as offerings to the dead.

Fragment of bone from cremation site.
Fragment of bone from cremation site.

Only a relatively small amount of bone was recovered from each cremation, indicating that only part of the remains was collected for burial from the pyre. The rest of the materials was likely gathered up and deposited in the adjacent large pit which was filled with layered deposits of ash, charcoal, cremated bone and carbonised wood. Each layer in the pit probably represents a single cremation pyre. 

Rachel Frame, Senior Archaeologist at the Magna Project commented “all of the cremations have now been fully excavated and the remains removed from the site for further study and analysis. We hope to learn more about the individuals who were buried here including where they came from, what their diet was like and when the burials took place.”  Rachel went on to say that “One possibility is that these are the remains of Britons who came to the Wall at the beginning of the 3rd century to carry out repairs to Hadrian’s Wall. It is known that people were sent from across the province as part of this monumental effort and it is likely that not all of them would have survived their time on the frontier.” 

Dark areas areas of earth circled indicating ancient cremations
Dark areas areas of earth circled indicating the ancient cremations

The unusual location of these burials may suggest that they were not part of the local Roman or British population in this area but instead a more transient population, as this is not the location of the known Roman cemetery for the settlement at the site.  This discovery offers archaeologists the opportunity to discover more about a group of people whom history has almost completely forgotten. 

This discovery also provides further context for the single cist grave discovered outside milecastle 46 at Magna in 2023. This is no longer an isolated grave but is instead represented the continuation of a tradition of burials at this place. A transit point through the frontier from the Roman Empire to the lands beyond its boundaries.

The excavations at Roman Magna are part of a £2.5m project which has been supported with a £1.65m grant from The National Lottery Heritage Fund. Thanks to Lottery Players this funding is enabling research which will continue at Magna until 2027.  Follow the excavation journey by reading the Dig Diary which has regular updates from the site.

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