By Dr Neil Faulkner
Last updated 2011-02-17
The Wheathampstead burials - Two of the richest burials from Roman Britain (AD 43-410) were uncovered by St Albans archaeologists, after metal-detectorist Dave Phillips showed them some spectacular finds.
They recovered a total of 153 separate items, including 13 bronze vessels, 14 Samian vessels (fine tableware with a red glossy surface), nine glass vessels, three iron blades, two silver brooches (decorated with sea serpents) with their connecting chain, a bronze lamp-holder, various bronze fittings from a wooden casket, various fragments of ivory, and a bag full of huntsmen's arrows. What sort of people were buried with so many top-of-the-range artefacts?
The Verulamium elite - About ten miles away lies one of the largest towns in Roman Britain - Verulamium (modern St Albans). The town was ruled by a council of local landowners, who maintained both urban and rural residences.
The Wheathampstead burials were probably those of a top aristocratic family who were members of Verulamium's ruling elite, but chose to be buried on their country estate. They are likely to have been Romanised Britons rather than Romans from continental Europe. Property and rank were safe under the Romans, and many upper class 'stakeholders' bought into the new system wholesale. Having Italian tableware was one way of showing this.
Pots and pans from Pompeii? - Some of the bronze vessels in the graves were quality flagons imported from the Bay of Naples (where the ancient town of Pompeii lies). The decoration on the handles included miniature faces and figures in the best naturalistic tradition of classical art: a Minerva (goddess of wisdom), a triton (a mythic male mermaid), and a Medusa (the ghastly gorgon whose gaze turned men to stone). They count among the finest bronzes to be seen anywhere in the Roman Empire at the time.
Posh dinner parties - The Wheathampstead aristocrats went to the underworld with the dining sets they had used in life to impress both upper-class neighbours and their own dependants. The bronze flagons especially - beautifully crafted objects from the Mediterranean heart of classical civilisation - conveyed a message of wealth and sophistication. They were part of an elaborate display of Romanitas - Roman cultural identity - designed to set the Romano-British elite apart from both the Celtic peasants who worked their estates and the 'barbarian' tribes outside the imperial frontiers.
Found in St Albans by local archaeologists, after Dave Phillips uncovered the site while searching with a metal detector.
Discover more amazing finds at the Portable Antiquities Scheme database.
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