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seXand t theceme ery New light on glass vessels in Romano-British graves

Hilary Cool

What can we deduce from the glass vessels that are sometimes found in Romano-British funerary rituals? The most common use of glass bowIs is as containers for the ashes, while the cups and jugs found with later Roman burials could well have been used in dining. However some glass vessels may have a more particular significance.

Some small flasks and jars may have contained oils and perfumes for anointing the body. From the molten state of many vessels, the contents had probably been used on the pyre before the body was cremated. The redeposited debris from funeral pyres sometimes shows that small fragments of molten blue/ green glass are present. These are all that remain of what may have been a very costly part of the funeral. In one of Pliny the Younger's letters, for exampfe, he recounts how, on the death of the daughter of one his friends, the father ordered the money he had intended to be spent on her wedding should be used for incense, ointment and spices for her funeral: the only archaeological trace would have been the glass packaging.

In other cremation burials small flasks and jars were placed in the grave intact. It is possible, of course, that the contents could have been used on the pyre or to scent the bones, but there are sometimes hints that the deceased or the mourners felt that perfume or make-up would be needed in the grave. The grave of an adult woman buried at Billericay, in Essex, in the later 2nd century (shown above) contained four small jan;; suitable for cosmetics, a perfume bottle and a speculum mirror as well as a pottery beaker and flask and the umed remains. At the risk of being accused of gender stereotyping, this does suggest that in life she may have been more than usually concerned with her appearance.

Evidence for religion? There is one particular vessel where a religious use may be suspected. This is the pipette-shaped flask that can range in length from a modest 10cm to an extraordinary half metre or more. These have been found in a number of graves in England, including that of the Spitalfields lady featured in an earlier edition of Current Archaeology (162, see also letter in 165). Their distribution is curious. Firstly they are found in graves scattered across the Empire. By the 4th century, the vessel types in use in the east and west of the Empire are very different, and within each area there are distinct regional types. To find a type that cuts across these boundaries is most unusual. Secondly, in the western Empire these flasks are overwhelmingly found in graves, and scarcely feature at all on occupation sites. The almost exclusive association with funerals is most extraordinary.

There are various recurring features in the richer graves. Stone sarcophagi and leadlined coffins are not unusual and sometimes, as in the Spitalfields example, the grave has

Ready to look your best, and smell your best in the next world? An adult woman, buried at Billericay in the later 2nd century, took four small cosmetic jars with her as well as the tall perfume bottle in the middle. The grave also contained a mirror, not shown.

Photo Hilary Cool, courtesy of the Billericay Archaeological and Historical Society




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