Hampshire Archaeology

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Buried in time – an Early Romano-British cemetery at Alton

A small Early Romano-British cremation cemetery was excavated at 87 High Street, Alton in 1860 and again in 1980. The first excavation uncovered a richly furnished cremation burial and most of the finds ended up in the Curtis Museum in the town. In 1980, before the construction of the Inner Ring Road, further exploration took place and eight more graves were excavated. All of the graves contained a large assemblage of pots as grave goods and several contained other items as well. The pottery suggests a date in the 1st century AD.

Digging in progress: 1980

Excavation in progress: 1980


The richest burial, known as Grave 2, was a shallow pit first discovered in 1860 and only completely excavated in 1980. The earlier excavation found 18 pottery vessels, two glass vessels, 19 glass gaming pieces and a gold signet ring. Metal corners were noted surrounding the gaming pieces and the presence of the ring suggested that these were originally contained within a wooden casket, along with the cremated remains of the deceased.

Some of the 19 glass counters

Some of the 19 glass gaming pieces

Grave 2: the bindings of the gaming board found in 1980

Grave 2: the bindings of the gaming board found in 1980

The two glass vessels

The two glass vessels

The 1980 excavation added a further 13 pottery vessels to the contents of this grave, as well as four copper alloy corner plates and a drop handle (which probably represent the remains of a gaming board). In addition there were two spoons, a fragment of an iron knife blade and a glass bead. The cremated bone is from an adult of indeterminate sex, although the signet ring and gaming pieces suggest he was male.

Cast of the signet ring gem stone.

Cast of the signet ring gem stone.

The stone inset in the gold signet-ring was engraved with four symbols representing Roman deities. At the time of the burial, Roman law dictated that gold rings could only be used by people of high rank, indicating that the deceased was of high status, possibly a native aristocrat. A signet-ring was generally passed to the heir at the time of death as proof of succession and it is unusual for one to be found in a grave. The most likely explanation for the inclusion of the ring is that the deceased was young, or without heirs.

Alton Grave 5 - horse's head to the left.

Alton Grave 5 – horse’s head to the left.

Another of the Alton graves, known as Grave 5, was in a deep pit with two distinct deposits. The upper layers contained 13 broken pottery vessels, a scatter of animal bone and cremated human bone. The lower deposit had been carefully covered with earth and levelled before this upper material was added. The lower deposit itself contained 40 pottery vessels, two brooches, two finger rings of copper alloy and iron, a copper alloy cosmetic set (tweezers, nail-cleaner, ear scoop), copper alloy fragments of a casket (including studs, lock plate and drop handle), an iron knife and eight nail fixings from a wooden box. The grave also contained an inverted horse skull. Cremated bones from an adult of indeterminate sex were contained in a pot with a lid placed in the grave early in the sequence of filling. The grave goods suggest that this may be a female burial. The broken pottery in the upper fill of the grave may represent the disposal of things used to prepare a funerary feast after the remainder of the grave had been filled.


Further reading

Millett M (1986) Early Roman Cemetery at Alton, Hants Field Club Vol 42, pp 43-87

Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, with help from Stacie Elliot.


1 Comment

  1. Stephen cooper says:

    Hi Dave you looking well a bit greyer Steve

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