Burial Practice in Roman Chester – The use of lead

The use of lead in the act of burial is a Roman introduction to Britain, as no evidence exists before the conquest (Philpott 1991, 28). Its malleability made it a very versatile material, especially in creating cylindrical objects such as pipes and urns.

KODAK Digital Still Camera
Figure 1 Lead Urn from Handbridge, Cheshire. The remains are still sealed in the urn. From the Grosvenor Museum (Authors own Photograph)

Looking at the evidence for lead based burial practice, it seems that much of the evidence comes from civilian urban settlements. This links in with the evidence of Roman introduction since the people living in these settlements would have been citizens. The use of lead is an identifying feature of being a citizen.

This specimen (figure 1) was found at Handbridge, one of the villages surrounding the fortress of Chester. This settlement is known as a canabae. These settlements built up around fortresses and were made up of veterans, families of the soldiers and locals who could provide services to the legionaries.

This builds upon the archaeological evidence that shows that these were a Roman introduction to Britain, and that they were primarily used by Roman citizens themselves. The use of lead in burials by citizens isn’t a conscience decision about identity but is simply the way things were done. It is in burials which there are a combination of cultures when it takes another meaning. If we look at the most atypical example in comparison to the more typical example at Chester, we can make a more thorough look at what lead means in terms of identity.

Mersea Museum TM4_1342
Figure 2 Urn, lead ossuary, and cremated remains from the Mersea Barrow, Essex (100-120 AD). The Urn would have been placed in the lead ossuary. (Photograph courtesy of Mersea Museum)

The Mersea Barrow (located in Essex, east of Colchester), is a second century AD Roman tomb (c. 100-120 AD). It is in the style of older British burials, but the grave furnishings are exclusively Roman. The Barrow is very high status since the cremated remains were anointed in frankincense (Brettell et al. 2013). If this is the tomb of Romanised native (Philpott 1991 (28), the lead ossuary (a box or an urn used to reduce space) is marking him out as Roman. I think this is especially the case, as he has two cinerary containers (cremation urn), the lead is there to specifically mark him out as Roman.

What does this mean for the Handbridge specimen? If we look at the material culture of a people and see an active element in sustaining your social identity (Eckardt 2014, 20), the lead ossuaria increase in their importance, acting as flags to proclaim a person’s Roman identity. It is especially interesting that this was so important to a person in death. The Roman idea of Memoria is a good way of thinking about this, Memoria is the memory of the person, their influence, power and character, the identity of a person would fall into this character, as it is something that they would want to bring with them to the afterlife


Anderson, A.S. 1984 Roman Military Tombstones. Aylesbury: Shire Publications Ltd.

Brettell R.C. Stern, B. Heron, C.P. 2013 Mersea Island Barrow: molecular evidence for frankincense. Essex Society for Archaeology and History, 4, pp.81-7.

Eckardt, H 2014 Objects and Identities. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Philpott 1991 Burial Practice in Roman Britain: A survey of grave treatment and furnishing. Oxford: Tempus Repartvm.


Figure 1 Lead Urn from Handbridge, Cheshire. (Authors own Photograph)

Figure 2 Glass Urn, lead ossuary, and cremated remains from the Mersea Barrow, Essex (100-120 AD). (Photograph courtesy of Mersea Museum)

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