‘Hominem mortuom in urbe ne sepelito neve urito’ Ancient Roman law forbade burial or cremation within a town and this practice was also observed on rural sites like villas and farmsteads. Exceptions to the rule were infant burials and four of these are known from Rockbourne, but when an adult burial is discovered on such a site there is generally a particular reason for it. Two male skeletons were found there in the early 1960s, and although the details are far from clear, both could be called unusual burials.
The first, found in July 1962, was in the north east corner of ‘Room 14’, lying on its back, at floor level, and covered by stone roof tiles and other debris. The tile deposit, in particular, was so uniform in this location that it could be argued that the roof had collapsed and crushed the poor individual, although Morley Hewitt, the excavator, suggests that some tiles were beneath him too. So perhaps we will never know whether this was the case, but it does seem plausible that he was taking shelter in an abandoned building when it fell in on top of him.
He was in his late 30s or early 40s at the time of death, and stood about 5’ 11” (1.82m) tall. As the bones were crushed by the roof material the skull was lifted using a plaster cast and it was 1976 before this was worked on and the 108 fragments were painstakingly put back together. Morley Hewitt felt that the individual had a ‘long, thin face’ of a type considered to be Saxon, but whatever his appearance, a fairly immediate post-Roman date seems likely.
The second individual was found in 1965. He was buried ‘outside Room 3’ and was face down in a shallow grave. Most of the foot bones and the right hand were missing, and although Morley Hewitt felt this may have resulted from Saxon punishment treatment for felons, it is much more likely that stone-robbers, digging out flints from the adjacent walls, had disturbed the grave.
This man was also between 35 and 45 years old at the time of death, but was of smaller stature, at 5’ 7” (1.69m) in height. His skull had some interesting pathology. His lower jaw was deformed on the left side and his chin pointed. The deformity had probably occurred before the bones were fully fused (9 months) and may have resulted from a problematic birth. His face must have appeared quite distorted, but tooth wear suggests that he managed to eat quite effectively.
The left side of the skull has a hole on the frontal bone, just below the temporal ridge. This ‘trepanning’, near the muscle attachment for the lower jaw, was presumably done in an attempt to relieve chronic pain, or exorcise the bad spirits associated with his deformity. He survived the operation and the bone had healed, but his ultimate burial in such a lonely place, face down and weighed down with stones, suggests that the community were worried that the evil influence that caused his troubles might still be around. The date of this skeleton is not known either, but the Saxon or early medieval periods seem most likely.
Rockbourne Roman Villa, near Fordingbridge. The site was occupied from Late Iron Age times, throughout the Roman period, to around 400 AD.
Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone, with help from Stacie Elliot.