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An Osteological and Historical Study of Three Roman Funerary Urns at the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum Collection

1. Ancient Roman Cinerary Urns in Context

§1.1 There are three Ancient Roman marble cinerary urns currently on display in the collection of the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum. [Image 1] These three urns, along with over a hundred Latin inscriptions, were purchased in Italy between the years 1905 and 1907 by Hopkins professor Harry Langford Wilson. There is a good chance that at least one, if not all three, of these urns were originally found at the necropolis on the Via Salaria, but there is no official record of this in either the museum documentation or the University archives. In fact, hardly any provenance at all has been retained, and absolutely nothing was known of the contents of the urns before this study was undertaken.

§1.2 Like all other necropoleis, the Via Salaria necropolis was outside the bounds of the city. During the Late Republic through the Early Empire, between the years 100 BCE and 100 CE, the preferred way of disposing of the dead was through cremation. It continued in popularity until around the 4th century CE, when inhumation overtook and became the norm.

§1.3 There are not very many primary source accounts of Roman funerary practices. Many of them are fragments of inscriptions, or asides in larger textual pieces. We do know that the body would have been placed on a pyre, and burned. The pyres were lit below the center of the body, which was still fleshed. Personal effects and possibly pet animals may have been burned at the same time.[1] Some burials studied contained pig bones, suggesting that the animal may have been sacrificed at the same time. Often, the funerary couch would have been placed on the pyre as well. Once it was burned, the remains were raked out, collected, broken, and placed within the compartment(s) of the cinerary urn.

§1.4 It is thought that the family would go out to a workshop to buy the urn and have the inscription set. If an urn was needed to hold the remains of more than one person, a larger one than the usual would have been bought. The urns would then be transported from the workshop to the site of the pyre. The day after the cremation, the ashes would be gathered and then placed in the urn. The urn would then be moved to its niche in the tomb or columbarium. However, the particulars of this process remain unknown, as there is no textual evidence, and not much can be seen of this process in the archaeological record.[2]

§1.5 The earliest known columbaria date to the late first century BCE and were made for the large staffs of senatorial families.[3] Taking their name from the dovecotes that they resembled, these structures held many niches in rows and columns. These niches could be either arched or rectangular.[4] Each niche would have held several cavities, each containing their own funerary urn.[5] The largest columbaria could hold several thousand urns.

§1.6 By the mid first century CE, the niches began to be embellished, with pilaster and pediment decorations becoming more popular and the niches were enlarged to hold the larger marble cinerary urns which had become more popular.[6] An individual’s niche could be further customized by family: small shelves were sometimes added to hold offerings, a border or frame would be added around the niche, and a stone tablet could be inscribed with the deceased’s name and placed before the niche opening.[7] There would have been steps and movable wooden platforms so that it would be easier for family members to return.[8]

§1.7 The family members would visit these urns over the years, sometimes pouring ritual libations of wine, milk, honey, or perfumes through special holes in the tomb or cinerary urns. Throughout the year, devotions were offered at household shrines to the dead of the family, strengthening the bond between the living and the dead.[9] Toys would be left for children, mirrors and cosmetics would be left for women, and men would be left dice and drinking cups.[10] Terracotta figures, carved boxes, portrait busts, and pieces of pottery are also found.[11]

§1.8 The urns themselves underwent many stylistic incarnations over the years. There are some urns that were made of glass alabaster or onyx.[12] They have been known to be made from marble, particularly after the first century CE. The shape can vary: most common is the rectangular shape, with a flattened rectangle on the front face upon which the name of the deceased and a short text would have been inscribed on. Different decorations come in and out of style over the years, including bucrania, cupids, dolphins, spears, columns, pilasters, and ashlar masonry. The lids were also decorated: often they were shaped like temple roofs with antefixes, or had masks, palmettes, or scale patterns carved upon them. Some urns have feet and some do not.[13] Because these urns were most often stored in columbaria niches, often the front and some of the sides were the only parts of the urn that would have decoration. The inscription is most often placed on the front of the piece, surrounded by a decorative border of some sort.

2. The Johns Hopkins University Marble Cinerary Urns

§2.1 All three of the urns in the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum collection have inscriptions. They are all rectangular marble urns which most likely date somewhere between the first and third centuries CE. All of them have been mentioned in publications of the Wilson collection written by the Professor himself and his student Magoffin between 1907 and 1912. The urns were assigned JHU Museum accession numbers 73, 74, and 75. I will be focusing on Urn 74 for the remainder of this paper.

§2.2 Urn number 74, Wilson number 66, is a double urn displayed in the center of the three urns.[14] [Image 2] Its dimensions are 31.5 cm by 59.2 cm by 36.9 cm. There is a three line inscription, “COELIAE Q. L. ATHENAIDI / Q. COELIUS PRIMUS / PATRONUS”, which translates to “To Coelia Athenais, freedwoman of Quintus: Quintus Coelius Primus, Patron (dedicated this).” Coelia was likely a freedwoman who probably originally hailed from Greece. Her patron is the one who procured this urn for her. Unlike the other two urns, we have slightly more provenance information. Wilson states that it was found outside the Porta Salaria.[15] The database entry suggests that it dates to the first century CE, though the source of this information is unknown. The inscription fills the entire width of the urn, but each compartment has its own lid.Both lids are carved, with “crenellation-like contours on the upper edge.” [16] Like other urns of the same period, the front and sides of this urn are well carved – in this case, they have recessed panels. The back is roughly chiseled. There are two broken lead nails on each lid, on the proper right back and proper left front.

3. Osteology and Cremation

§3.1 The bones of the skeleton can be divided into three main groups. The first are the long bones, which consist of the various limb bones, and several of the hand and foot bones. Long bones form via several centers of ossification. The epiphyses are the ends of the long bones that develop from secondary ossification centers. The shaft is called the diaphysis. The second group is comprised of the flat bones of the skull, pelvis, scapula and rib cage. The third group has everything else, comprising the irregularly shaped bones of the ankle and wrist, and the vertebrae.

§3.2 The sex and age of the individual can be guessed at by looking at several characteristics in combination. The cranium and the pelvis are of particular note in these determinations. The shape of bone can also change during life in response to occupational stress, trauma, or disease.

§3.3 Because the bones being examined in this case were cremated, I do not expect to see a lot of evidence of pathology or occupational stress. The warping, shrinking, and flaking off of cortical bone due to the cremation process will disguise all but the most extreme cases. Because of the burning process, the DNA of the individuals would not have lasted.

§3.4 However, there is still much that can be learned from cremated remains. Several questions have to be asked. First: are these bones human? Once this has been established, then the number of individuals present must be estimated. The total mass of the remains may also give more information. A complete male cremation will be several hundreds of grams heavier than a complete female. If the weights are very large, then it is likely that more than one individual is present.

§3.5 If there is more than one individual, we may ask: why were they related, and thus placed together on purpose? Or was it merely an accident? Evidence can be found in the proportions between the remains of the individuals (roughly half and half indicates an intentional burial). An almost complete set of remains with one or two bones from a different individual can indicate reuse of the urn.

§3.6 If the cremains are placed in an urn, you can treat the container as if it were a miniature archaeological site. The distribution of the bones within the urn can be random, or it could be anatomical, depending on the funerary ritual of the culture involved, and it can tell you about the cremation process itself.If the cremains are all jumbled up, it could be because the cremation was “assisted,” in which “those officiating used sticks, for example, to push the outer parts of the body towards the middle of the pyre where the fire is more intense.” [17] The cremains could also have been disturbed if the urn was revisited and offerings left, or later in the urn’s history, due to excavation, relocation, or agitation of the urns.

4. The Cremated Remains in the Johns Hopkins University Urns

1. Protocol

§4.1 It is important to have a proper place to analyze remains. The structural integrity of the bones must be protected, but there must also be good lighting, and the appropriate equipment if necessary. A movable, concentrated light source is recommended. Tools, such as measuring tapes and calipers, should be used carefully so as not to scratch or otherwise damage the bone. The space must also be free of harmful chemicals that might affect the bone. Every surface used must be padded.

§4.2 After some thought and consultation with Sanchita Balachandran, the conservator of the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum, we decided that nothing would be done to fix, preserve, or clean the bones. We made this decision because of our concern that they would disintegrate or fall apart with excessive handling. Purple nitrile gloves were worn at all times the bones needed to be handled.

§4.3 Two of the tables in the Archaeological Museum were moved to the floorspace directly in front of the urns. These tables were lined with Volara, with some strips of table left uncovered so that there would be space to place laptops, a camera, a scale, calipers, and any book resources for easy use. Two movable standing lamps were used and their brightness changed accordingly by changing the number of individual bulbs on at any given time. A small scale, accurate to a tenth of a gram and up to 2000 grams was used. A set of plastic calipers was also at hand, though it was not used particularly often.

§4.4 The aim of this study included determining the minimum number of individuals, the age and sex of the individuals, as well as any pathologies which may have left their marks on the bones and survived the cremation process. The non-bone objects that were found with the bones in the compartments would also be studied.

§4.5 The left compartment of the double urn, accession number 74, was examined first, from January 7th to January 17th. Photographs were taken of the bones in the compartment as soon as the lid was removed, and the compartment was divided into four quadrants. The bones were removed according to quadrant, layer by layer. Each layer was roughly 2cm in depth. The bones were then photographed again in their layer and quadrant designations. The bones that could be identified were sorted out, and then laid out in roughly anatomical position on the second table. [Image 3] Those that could not be identified were placed in coroplast boxes, each containing a different group of unknowns: long bones, irregulars, and cortex.

§4.6 The bones were identified with the help of Dr. Valerie DeLeon, a professor in the Functional Anatomy and Evolution Department at Johns Hopkins Medical Institution, on the three days when she was able to come down to the museum. On other days, the bones were identified by myself, using knowledge gained from an independent study in human osteology taken in the fall semester of 2012. Also used for reference were Tim White’s The Human Bone Manual and a bone box containing an actual human skeleton used to teach anatomy to the medical students at the Johns Hopkins Medical School.

§4.7 The non-bone material that was found was also placed in its own coroplast box, except for insect casings, which were placed in their own individual tubes. Every bone or item of non-bone material that was larger than 0.5cm3 was noted in an excel spreadsheet, which was my own adaptation of the Buikstra book’s worksheet for cremated human remains. The adjustments made to the columns of this spreadsheet were derived from the different categories of bone color and fracture pattern stated in a relevant chapter in The Analysis of Burned Human Remains, a more recent book that focuses on both forensic cases and archaeological cases.[18] The size, color, layer number, quadrant letter, fracture pattern, and any other observations were noted in this spreadsheet. The compartment was emptied following this procedure, layer by layer until the bottom of the urn was reached. Photographs were taken of each layer in the urn, each layer pulled, and several photographs were taken during the identification process itself. Once the urn was emptied, except for a small amount of bone dust at the bottom, all the bone pieces were weighed. Each identifiable piece of bone was then photographed with an appropriately sized scale and a color strip against a black suede background. Any pieces of bone that could tell the approximate age and sex of the individual were more closely examined at this stage. Once everything was photographed, the bones were put back in the urn. Custom boxes were made in an effort to keep the identified bones sorted out. The unknown bones were placed in the bottom of the urn, followed by a piece of volara, a piece of tyvek, and a piece of printed paper explaining that bone dust is still found at the bottom of the container. The identified bones were stacked in their appropriate custom box. A piece of Volara was placed on top of everything, and then the lid was replaced. [Image 4]

§4.8 The right compartment of urn 74, examined between January 17th and 23rd, was also divided into quadrants, with the same lettering system as used in the left compartment. The same protocol regarding the layers of bones pulled was used as well. Only the bones that could be identified, or were irregularly shaped (such that coming back and taking a second look would be warranted) were recorded in the Excel document. Weights were taken of the bones as a whole as soon as they were removed from the urn, instead of at the end, in an attempt to reduce error. Custom boxes were then made for the bones, which were then placed back into the compartment, and the lid replaced.

2. Photography protocol

§5.1 For documentation, the museum’s camera, a Nikon d7000, was used for photography. The Archival film setting was used for the object photography. The micro lens was used for the particularly small pieces.

§5.2 For the individual bone photography, the bones were taken to the back room of the museum, where the photography equipment was set up. The camera was attached to an overhead stand and made level. The urn number, the compartment and the date were both printed out using the museum label maker. These were then attached to a scale and a color square.

§5.3 The bone or object was placed on a nonreflective black suede background. One of the standing lights was brought into the back, and placed at a raking position for the best angle. Two or three shots, at different orientations were taken of each diagnostic identifiable bone found in the compartment.

3. Findings of Urn 74, left and right compartment

§6.1 The left compartment was examined first. Once the lid was taken off, the state of the cremains was apparent. There were some large pieces of bones, particularly on the top level. At some point, the urn was tilted towards its front: there were very many smaller pieces located in the front two quadrants, and the height of pile of bones was higher. The same holds true for the right compartment, though the pile centered more on the front proper left corner.

§6.2 A total of 2055.5 grams worth of bones were found in the left compartment, which corresponds to roughly 387 different identifiable bone fragments as well as the large pieces of unknown long bone, cortex, and irregular pieces. The right compartment contains 1746.4 grams worth of bone material, with 391 different identifiable bone fragments.

§6.3 Judging from the bone identification, there is more than one individual present in both of the urn’s compartments. In the left compartment, there were three different radial heads [Image 5] , two distal right humeri, three occipital condyles, three taluses, and too many skull fragments for just one skull. In the right compartment, two left distal humeri were found, along with an additional occipital condyle and an additional talus. In addition to this, there were three glenoid cavities (the articular part of the scapula) and two right petrosal pyramids found in this compartment.

§6.4 I found that there was at least one adult, probably female, though the bones were rather robust. There was also an elderly adult of indeterminate sex, and a juvenile, also of indeterminate sex. A piece of mandible in the left compartment fits with a piece of mandible found in the right compartment [Image 6], indicating that the remains were comingled, possibly intentionally when the remains were first placed in the urns. A set of juvenile bones were also found, consisting of several skull fragments, a femoral head, several immature vertebrae, a tiny axis (a particular cervical vertebra), an immature proximal ulna in the left compartment, and a tiny patella in the right compartment, and two distal humeri, with no growth plate attached. [Image 7, Image 8] The right distal humerus was found in the left compartment and the left distal humerus was found in the right. These humeri were the same size, so I infer that they belonged to the same juvenile individual. The unfused state of the limb epiphyses indicates that this child is less than ten years of age, but without a complete set of teeth or skull bones, a more accurate assessment cannot be made.

§6.5 The female was identified mostly from the right compartment, judging by several pelvic fragments and a glabella (a cranial feature that is less robust in females). The older individual was identified in both compartments by the presence of osteophytes on several vertebral pieces, a fully fused allosphenoid bone, and lipping present on the ischial tuberosity, a piece of the pelvis.

§6.6 There was also one or two bone fragments found that did not look entirely human. This would have to be further analyzed at a later time.

§6.7 The total weight of the bones found in the left compartment was 2055.5 grams. The total found in the right compartment was 1746.4 grams. A complete set of modern cremains can weigh up to 2000 grams. However, the likelihood of a complete set of cremains being found in an urn is unlikely. In one study, the average weight of a cremated male in the Imperial Roman Period was 638 grams, and that of a female is 479 grams.[19] This lends credence to the fact that we have more than one individual present in this double urn.

§6.8 There was also a variety of inorganic material in the two compartments. In the left compartment, several pieces of charred wood were found, along with rather lumpy pieces of melted lead, most likely from the nails poured in the lid. There was also a larger flat metal fragment, also of lead, which fits in between the lid and the body of the urn proper. There were also several pieces of plant matter very similar to what was found in Urn 73, including a small bit of a leaf. It is unknown whether this plant material is ancient, or whether it dates to the early 1900s, when the urns were shipped to Baltimore. A small fragment of a painted wall surface was also found in this compartment, with the pigment lying on top of a thin flat layer of plaster placed on the mortar. [Image 9] It was nearly a centimeter in both length and width, with traces of green pigment still present. An X-Ray Fluorescence test was performed on this fragment, which revealed the presence of copper. The green pigment is likely made of ground up malachite. A look at a sample of these crystals under a transmitted light microscope corroborates this guess. In addition to these fragments of wall surface, a small intaglio was also found, made of carnelian, with an inscribed figure of a running animal facing left. [Image 10] There is some gold leaf on the opposite side.

§6.9 Several more pieces of inorganic material were discovered in the right compartment. Again, there were several pieces of charred wood, plant material, and metal blobs found in this compartment. Another wall fragment was found, similar to the piece found in urn 74, but this time a smaller piece with a blue pigment. The XRF test again showed that there was copper present. This pigment is most likely ground up azurite, a theory which the transmitted light microscope viewings supports. There was also a tiny seashell, several small marble chips (each less than a centimeter squared in surface area), and a blue glass fragment. There were many insect casings, as well as some insect wings and some possible insect eggs. There were several pieces of textile, some finer than others. When examined under the microscope, this textile showed a plain weave of mercerized silk, pointing towards a more modern origin. It most likely found its way into the urn as part of the packing process, much like the plant matter. A larger piece of woven material may actually be a piece of basketry that appears to be unburnt. [Image 11] It was possibly dipped in resin of some sort. It is made of some sort of bast, most likely jute, judging from its physical properties under magnification. The fibers have a slight purple tinge, possibly due to the resin as opposed to some sort of dye. The reason why this particular object found its way into the urn compartment is unclear.

4. Urn Layers

§7.1 A closer look at the distribution of the bones in the urns was investigated out of curiosity. It is likely that the cremains would have shifted and settled over the years, either during excavation, or shipping, or during its stay in the Archaeological Museum. I am also not ruling out that antiquities dealers could have altered the urns in order to get better prices. Regardless, it would be interesting to see if the cremains were placed in the urns in a certain manner.

§7.2 As the bones were pulled and identified, the layer in the urn from which they were pulled was recorded. In order to make these charts [Chart 1,2] , the identified bones were assigned to an anatomical group: Vertebrae, Ribs/Sternum, Upper Limbs, Hand/Foot (for metatarsals, metacarpals, and phalanges), Pelvis, Lower Limbs, Inorganic, Crania, Shoulder Girdle (scapula, clavicle), Feet, and Hands. Two different charts were then made for each compartment, one which shows the percentage of each layer broken down into these anatomical groups, the other of which shows the distribution of the bones themselves. However, the fact that the sizes of the bone pieces are not accounted for in this chart must still be kept in mind.

§7.3 These charts, in combination with my notes indicate that either the bones were not placed in any particular order, or the contents of the urn have been shifted enough throughout the years to render such an order impossible to see. Such shifting would account for the tendency for larger bone fragments to be on the higher layers.

5. Bone color and pyre temperature

§8.1 I have constructed a set of similar percentage charts to analyze the colors of the cremated bone. The bones are placed in the same anatomical groupings used to examine the placement of the bones in the urn, but this time they are compared to the color of the bone. [Chart 3,4,5] The colors are arranged on the X-axis so that they correlate roughly with increasing temperature from left to right. In the case where the bone had several colors present, the first color recorded in the spreadsheet corresponded to the color that covered the greatest percentage of surface area. This is the color that was used to populate the data set for the chart.

§8.2 The approximate temperature the pyre burned at by the condition and color of the bones. The bone that is lightly exposed to fire will first appear a light amber. When exposed for longer periods of time, it blackens. At this point, the bone is carbonized, the periosteum is gone, and the inorganic parts of the bone and bone marrow have burnt. This usually happens at a temperature around 300ºC. Bone that is grey in color has been burnt at a higher temperature, at least 600ºC. As the temperature of the fire increases, the bone turns blue-grey and eventually turns to white. Any other colors, such as green, yellow, pink, or red, indicate that some metal was burnt with the bones.[20]

§8.3 Though the presence of more than one individual suggests that there was likely more than one funeral pyre, the colors of the bones were very similar. As seen in both of the charts, there is a larger number of fragment colors which correspond to the higher pyre temperatures: namely, two nodes which comprise combustion grade III (grey, 550°C) and combustion grade IV (grey-white, 650°C). The last chart, which shows all of the fragments found in Urn 74 left compartment shows this most clearly. When bone is burned at this temperature, it takes on a chalky/dusty greyish white color. The enamel on the teeth had cracked and fallen off. The molar roots had broken off. However, the pyre was not a uniform temperature. Several bones, particularly the phalanges of the hands and feet were grey, not warped, with little fragmentation, which suggests a lower pyre temperature, likely at the edges. A large piece of a distal tibia, which forms part of the ankle, was found in the left compartment of the urn that was a charred black, suggesting that it was at times only near the fire.

5. Conclusion

§9.1 The amount of inorganic material found in each urn was interesting and rather unexpected. The vast majority of the pieces found were very small and fragmentary, suggesting that they were not placed whole in the urn. There is a chance that these were personal effects that were left with the bodies when they were cremated. This is most likely for the inscribed carnelian intaglio that was found in the left compartment. There is no evidence of the base it might have once been attached to or mounted on. These intaglios are most often associated with signet rings, or other things used to seal, with the inscribed decoration often associated with a specific person or family.

§9.2 The pieces of glass found in all of the urns were very tiny, so tiny that we were not able to identify what sort of vessel or container they may have been a part of. We do know that glass unguentaria or some other kind of glass vessels were sometimes left with bodies before cremation.[21] Many little glass flakes that are a byproduct of glass degradation were found, especially in the two large compartments of Urn 74.

§9.3 For the future, more studies could be done on the inorganic material. The insect casings found in Urn 74, right compartment could be identified, and a sample sent for carbon 14 dating.

§9.4 In regards to the inscriptions and the possible history of the objects, while it is known that cinerary urns such as these may have been reused, there is no definitive indication that this was the case for any of these three urns. The presence of more than one individual was expected in Urn 74. It is a double urn, and the inscription mentioned the names of two people, both a freedwoman and her patron. From this inscription, prior to this osteological study, it was thought that the freedwoman’s remains would be found in one compartment and her patron’s remains in the other. It was not unheard of, then, to free a slave and for the patron to take up with or marry her. It was often romanticized for lovers to die together, or to refuse to live without each other. This is seen in many texts, for example:

“Marcus Plautius’ wife became ill and died. At the funeral when she was placed on the pyre and was being anointed and kissed, he fell on his drawn sword. His friends put his body next to his wife’s, just as he was in toga and sandals, and then put torches under the pyre and cremated them together.Their tomb was made there and can still be seen in Tarentum [Taranto, Italy] , and it is called ‘The tomb of the two lovers.’” [22]

Valerius Maximus 4.6.3 Memorable Deeds and Sayings: 1st c. AD

Though obviously highly dramatized, symbolism such as this could lie behind the placement of a couple and the mingling of their remains in the same urn. Assuming that the remains of the individuals in the compartments matches those referenced in the inscription, the analysis of the cremains further supports this theory, in particular because of the comingling of the individuals’ remains. The presence of a juvenile was unexpected, and may point towards the existence of family ties between the three of them. As mentioned earlier, the DNA would not have survived the cremating process, so DNA analysis is not an option. The remains were evenly distributed within the compartment and they all showed a similar color distribution. We cannot know whether they had all perished and were cremated and placed in the urn at different time, or whether they were placed, or even cremated at the same time. The remains of the elderly individual, if in fact corresponding to the male patron, could possibly indicate that he died at a later time and was subsequently added to the urn, though again, this is merely speculation. The osteological, textual, and archaeological based evidence all come together to hint at a compelling historical tale.

6. Bibliography




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Wallace-Hadrill, Andrew. “Chapter 2. Housing the Dead: The Tomb as House in Roman Italy.” Commemorating the Dead : Texts and Artifacts In Context : Studies of Roman, Jewish, and Christian Burials. Ed. Laurie Brink and Deborah A. Green. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2008.

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———. “Latin Inscriptions at the Johns Hopkins University. VII” The American Journal of Philology Vol. 33 (1912):168-185.


“Walters Art Museum: Welcome to the Online Collection” 2013 http://art.thewalters.org/browse/

“A Roman Funeral” Date Accessed: April, 2013 http://www.umich.edu/~kelseydb/Exhibits/Death_on_Display/Cremation_Group/funeral.html

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