In order to establish what influenced the selection of artefacts placed within the Welwyn Garden City burial, it is important to look at the diffusion of Roman culture through the aperture of exchange and trade to be able to understand where these funerary practices developed from. As I will attempt to illustrate, the transmission of cultural norms was fundamental to the formation of a funerary ritual that has its earliest foundations in the Etrurian culture of present day Tuscany.
The investigation of archaeological remains starts with the context in which it was formed and strips off the individual layers in an effort to form a complete picture of the material culture contained within (Carver 2009). A context contains those elements both seen and unseen within a particular site, be they the artefacts and assemblages themselves, or the chemical compounds within the soil (Carver 2009). Carver states that “assemblage means a collection of objects – either objects of the same kind spread across the site or objects of a different kind in the same place (Carver 2009, 224).” Assemblage analysis requires the collection and investigation of artefacts in their respective contexts but also in a wider context when appropriate (Carver 2009).
This will involve examining the material culture through the fabric, form, style, typology, dating and even the provenance of the assembled artefacts (Carver 2009). The context of the Welwyn Garden City cremation lies within the assemblage of artefacts which are largely amassed from a collection of trade goods which display an exchange of Roman culture to the south-east of Britain (Stead 1967). This new funerary rite was first seen in the much earlier mortuary culture of Etruria, Italy, which was rapidly adopted and transformed by the Romans and expanded throughout the Empire through socio-political exchange, trade and cultural assimilation (Pieraccini 2000).
In this context, the consumption of food and wine becomes a powerful mnemonic device representing the circle of life, a statement of wealth and status, as well as a transformative ritual preparing the deceased for their journey to the afterlife (Pieraccini 2000). This practice of remembrance allows for a link to be created between the mourners and the deceased, creating a cohesive group identity across the separation of life and death (Williams 2004). Burial ritual in this sense reflects a certain level of social organisation in the development of mortuary practices, particularly with regards to cremation burials, through the roles assigned by the mourners (Parker Pearson 1982). These roles are linked through their association to the mortuary practice as well as the social status of the deceased which is represented through the material culture interred in the grave site (Parker Pearson 1982). This is likely the case with cremation burials, as they were often linked to high status individuals in this context (Parker Pearson 1982). While there is no clear evidence to support the type or quantity of food contained within the burial chamber, there are preparatory tools and platters for serving (Stead 1967). This gives further emphasis to the concept of these practices being an amalgamation of previous funerary culture.
Following the Roman conquest of Britain, there was an influx of funerary practices throughout south-east Britain which mixed the mortuary traditions of both the Late Iron Age Britons and those imported from Rome (Williams 2004). While cremation burials in and of themselves may not have been unique to this transitional culture, the decision to inter the remains within ceramic ware vessels was clearly a distinctive choice (Williams 2004). Although it is easy to assume that these practices represented a ritualistic use of artefacts which were created specifically for the funerary rites, they were in fact items used in the daily life of the deceased (Williams 2004). Williams states that, “food and drink were consumed by the living and placed with the dead to create memories and sustain relationships between the living and the dead. It is also suggested that the consumption of food and drink provided and appropriate metaphor for communities disposing of the dead by cremation. Food, drink and human body were all ‘consumed’ during the sequence of cremation rituals. In both senses, ceramics associated with cremated remains and the consumption of food and drink promoted the transformation of identity and social memory in early Roman Britain. Before developing this argument, it is first necessary to explain the possible connections between cremation and the reproduction of social memory (Williams 2004, 419).” In this sense, a symbolic link is established between the commemoration of the dead, the cremation of the body and consumption in a multi-sensual mnemonic device (Williams 2004).
While there are six known examples of Welwyn-type burials, Welwyn Garden City is by far the most artefact rich and complete (Stead 1967). Other burials include Hertfordshire, Colchester, Northamptonshire and Cambridgeshire (Collins 1984). Discovered in 1906, the La Tène III cremation burial at Welwyn Garden City is located in south-eastern England, just north of the River Thames (Stead 1967). Previous burials discovered in the 19th century at Stanfordbury, Bedfordshire and Mount Bures, Colchester were of a similar period, but both had been disturbed to a much greater extent and were therefore not as complete as the burials at La Tène (Stead 1967). While other graves had been disturbed or the artefacts and remains damaged, the final grave, discovered by the use of a proton magnetometer, was almost complete (Stead 1967). Stead states that “the grave had been back-filled, not with gravel, but with a fine grey sandy earth including fragments of charred wood which could have been derived from the funeral pyre. There was no trace of a timber lining, nor anything resembling the structure of a vault. This seems to have been a grave which was fully back-filled immediately after the burial (Stead 1967, 5).” Interestingly, while there was an emphasis on drinking and feasting, as well as the inclusion of local and imported items of high status, there was no evidence of any type of warrior equipment present in the grave (Haselgrove 1999).
The Welwyn Garden City assemblage of artefacts represents a diffusion of Romano-Celtic culture to Britain, which was adopted by to social elites of the south-east through trade and exchange in the in the latter half of the 1st Century BCE (Hall & Forsyth 2011). This colonial transformation of culture is linked to the relationship between imported goods, exchange and a desire for the indigenous social elites to be assimilated into the new political power structure (Luley 2013). This appropriation of Roman material culture is reflected in the changing dining and ideological practices, which influenced the feasting aspects of the newly defined mortuary culture (Luley 2013). Containing a large assemblage of artefacts including five Dressel 1B wine amphorae, 35 items of fine table ware pottery, a silver cup, bronze strainer, bronze dish, bronze toilet articles, wooden vessels, straw mat, funerary urns and the fragmentary evidence of wood, bronze, iron and bone fragments – including 6 bear phalanges, the Welwyn Garden City burial represented a collection of both native and imported goods which displayed a genuine fusion of local and Roman culture (Stead 1967). Intriguingly, until the Roman invasion, Gallo-Belgic ware was a popular import, however at Welwyn Garden City, while there are Central Gaulic ware items present, the Gallo-Belgic was absent, suggesting a finite period of trade which must not have lasted any later than the 15 century BCE (Sealey 2009). As for the remainder of the assemblage, there was a variety of grey ware, which is believed to have come from Essex, as were the buff to light grey ware funerary urns (Stead 1967). In fact with the exception of those items and perhaps some of the fragmentary evidence, it is likely the vast majority of items interred were actually imported in an effort to denote the status of the deceased (Stead 1967).
Interestingly, the glass gaming pieces show the widest diversity in their materiality, as the opaque white is believed to be Assyrian glass, the opaque yellow could have come from as far as Russia and the opaque blue is likely to have originated in Gaul (Stead 1967). Stead states, “the places where we most reasonably expect to find parallels to these pieces are eastern and southern Gaul, the Alpine region and the upper Rhineland, and the Po valley,” further reinforcing this notion of the trade and exchange of culture through Romanisation (Stead 1967, 16). This can be illustrated through the discovery of similar game pieces excavated from two tombs from Montefortino as well as a further two near Bologna (Stead 1967).
Additionally the emphasis on the trade and exchange of material objects in the diffusion of culture leads to this flow of information that is expressed in a transfer of invention, ambitions, aspirations, ideologies and communication of ideas (Renfrew and Bahn 2012). That becomes clear when you consider that within the Roman Empire, board games were used as a tool to foster contacts during expansion, particularly in the Germanic world, where it allowed for what Hall & Forsyth call a “cross-frontier material cultural interaction (Hall & Forsyth 2011, 1327). This can be seen in the south-east of Britain, as the social elites adopted Roman culture, particularly in the form of gaming (Hall & Forsyth).
While it is clear that wine was central to the life of these individuals, it is not clear if the same can be said for religion. Is this a case of the wine creating a transformative process, connecting the gods to mortals and the living to the dead? Or is it something far much simpler, as the very process of eating representing the antithesis of death. It could be argued that the wine in this context is symbolic of the circle of life when feasting in a funerary context, with food representing the body and wine the blood. This symbolism is further reinforced by the inclusion of culinary items that were used for the preparation of food, as well as the more mundane items like the gaming pieces, which were clearly well used and may have been tied in some way to the life of the deceased. Conversely, it could be argued that these objects were merely gifts, given to the deceased as part of the necessary package to allow them to journey to the afterlife. And finally one cannot rule out the more simplistic need or desire to denote wealth and status through the inclusion of the high status goods which were particularly of an imported nature.
Overall what seems to be lacking is a clearly defined study that looks beyond the mere provenance of these objects and how they came to be interred as they were, be it the Welwyn Garden City burial, or any of the other cremation burials throughout western Europe at this time. Perhaps in the future, archaeologists studying these burials, should concentrate more on understanding the patterns of change and adaptation through the assimilation of this funerary rite into the existing indigenous culture and how that affects their own interpretation of it, rather than merely the exchange of culture and goods through trade and conquest. In conclusion, while there are no written records to allow for a full interpretation of this transitory material culture, perhaps through the use of greater artefact analysis or interdisciplinary approaches, it will be possible to gain a clearer understanding of why this new funerary rite was so attractive to the Iron Age peoples Rome conquered. Only then will a more structured understanding of this funerary culture be achieved.
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