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Colchester Archaeological Trust

CAT Report 323: summary

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An archaeological excavation at Handford House, 1 Queens Road, Colchester, Essex (now Handford Place), 2003 and 2004-2005.
by Orr, K
(with contributions from Anderson, S; Benfield, S; Bird, J; Black, EW; Brooks, H; Cool, HEM; Crummy, N; Curl, J; Eckardt, H, Fryer, V; Martingell, H; Sealey, P; Wild, JP; Wiltshire, P.)

Date report completed: 06/06/2005, revised version 23/11/2021
Location: Lexden, Colchester, Essex
Map reference(s): TL 9858 2475
File size: 33441 kb
Project type: Excavation
Significance of the results: ***
Keywords: Roman, inhumation burial, cremation burial, bustum, pottery, lamps, amphora burial

Summary. Excavations were carried out in 2003-5 during the construction of a small housing development on the site of the demolished Handford House, 1 Queens Road, Colchester, Essex. The development site lies within an area of dense Roman burials located to the west of the town and to the south of the main road leading to London. Inhumation and cremation burials have been recorded previously in the vicinity. Following the evaluation in 2002, excavations at the Handford House site produced results which are augmenting and extending our knowledge of early Roman burial practices and beliefs. The excavation revealed 68 burials in total, consisting of nine inhumation burials (excluding bone from three further inarticulated inhumations), two pyres and 57 cremation burials (seven of which did not contain cremated bone but have been classified as disturbed cremation burials). One possible pyre-debris deposit without cremated bone was also recorded. The two busta are the first of this type to be found in Colchester. The excavation consisted of the foundation trenches and service trenches which equated to approximately 10% of the 68m x 65m site. It is estimated that an open area excavation of the entire site would have exposed approximately 680 burials. Of the 57 cremation burials, 35 were definitely urned, either in a ceramic or glass vessel or in a wooden jewellery box. At least three of the cremations burials contained pots which had been deliberately broken, post cremation, as did one bustum. In two examples, parts of broken pots had been placed to cover lamps, which is good evidence for the lamps having been lit before the graves were backfilled. Twenty of the cremation burials contained one or more ancillary vessels alongside the urn/box, for example, dishes, flagons and small beakers. These may have held food and drink. Between 11 and 15 cremation burials contained deliberately-deposited pyre debris in the pit fill. The debris consisted of small fragments of cremated bone, charcoal and artefacts such as melted glass phials, burnt pottery, nails from wooden boxes, lamps, coins, jewellery, a bone needle, a bone die and hobnails. This material was burnt with the body on the pyre and deliberately placed with the cremated human remains. One of the urned cremation burials was deposited in a large Dressel 20 amphora. Subsequent excavation of its contents revealed a flagon, the neck of the amphora, the cremation urn, a lamp and a dish. Another cremation burial featured a large but broken Brockley Hill amphora which may have contained the cremation urn. Several cremation and inhumation burials and one bustum produced butchered animal bone and fish bones suggestive of grave goods or the remains of graveside feasting. A Roman rubbish-pit containing butchered animal bones may also represent the remains of graveside feasting. The environmental report shows little or no evidence for the deliberate deposition of plant materials on the pyre as offerings to the deceased. Although wood probably formed the main component of the pyres, subsidiary fuels almost certainly included gorse, bean ‘straw’, broom, bracken, dried grasses and grassland herbs. The limited excavation did not show any particular groupings to the cremation burials except a general thinning out in the north-western corner. The earliest cremations are mid 1st to 2nd century in date and some are definitely pre-Boudican. The cremation cemetery appears to have been in continuous use till the 3rd or 4th century. The southern side of the site featured areas of metalling which may be a Roman road or trackway aligned east to west. The nature of the excavation made it difficult to ascertain whether it was a continuous cambered trackway, a hollow way or several discrete gravelled areas. Nine adult inhumations (graves) were excavated, all of which were in the northern part of the site. No two burials were the same; the bodies were buried in different positions and on diffeent alignments, and only two bodies had been definitely placed in coffins. One body (male) had been buried wearing a shale armlet. Another (male) was buried wearing hobnail boots. Apart from being Roman, there is no conclusive dating evidence from most of the inhumations except for three which contained pottery dating them to some time between the mid 2nd to 4th centuries. Two inhumations did contain 1st- to 2nd-century pottery, but this may derive from earlier cremation burials. The shale armlet may either be Late Iron Age/early Roman or late Roman. Therefore it not possible to say whether the two burial practices of cremation and inhumation were being carried out concurrently or whether all the inhumations post-date the cremations. Study of the human bone shows that those interred had a normal range of pathologies and injuries and there was nothing unusual in their stature, mortality rates or ratios of male to female. Study of the teeth showed that their diet was rich in carbohydrates which was normal for the Roman period. The evidence from the glass vessels, small finds, the iconography on the lamps and coins, and the methods of cremation suggests that, in its earliest phases, the burial ground was closely associated with the inhabitants of the Roman colony with their wholly Romanised life-style, rather than the Romano-British (native) population living in the surrounding area. Busta are often associated with military centres and it is a burial rite which is likely to have been brought over from the continent Burial in the cemetery ceased before the end of the Roman period when the site was used as a source for gravel. There was very little evidence of activity on the site from later periods. In the 19th century, various large trenches up to 1 m deep were dug which removed some of the cremation burials and disturbed several inhumation burials. It is possible that these are the excavations of antiquarian George Joslin who lived opposite Handford House.