Archaeologists find graves of high-status Romans in Somerset

Discovery of unusual cemetery in Somerton offers clues as to standing of those buried there

The resting places of more than 50 adults and children have been found in an unusual Roman cemetery unearthed during building work for a new school in Somerset.

Archaeologists say the discovery at Somerton, near Glastonbury, sheds significant light on life and death in the south-west of Britain after the Roman invasion.

Some of the people buried in the Romano-British cemetery were clearly of high status, with the position of one woman’s skull indicating her head was initially resting on a pillow.

Tiny nails were also found at the foot of the graves, suggesting most of the people were buried wearing hobnail boots.

Human remains and a cooking pot found in  Roman cemetery in Somerton, Somerset
Human remains and a cooking pot were also discovered during building work for a new school. Photograph: Wessex Archaeology

But it is the structure of the graves that is fascinating. The majority were lined with local stone and capped and sealed with the same sort of slabs used to create roofs in the area 2,000 years ago.

In one particularly unusual grave, slabs were used to create a tent-like structure above the person who was buried.

A similar setup was recently discovered at the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station construction site on the Somerset coast – 25 miles (40km) north-west of Somerton – and it has echoes of grave profiles in Spain and Italy.

Other finds include “grave goods” such as pottery and jewellery, while one pot that was dug up contained a chicken wing. A coin from the time of Emperor Vespasian, who ruled from AD69 to AD79, and a piece of carved bone, most likely from a knife handle, were also uncovered.

A coin from the reign of Emperor Vespasian found in Somerton, Somerset
A coin from the period of Emperor Vespasian’s rule found at the site. Photograph: Wessex Archaeology

Steve Membery, an archaeologist and member of the South West Heritage Trust, which has overseen the excavations, said: “This site is a significant discovery. The individuals were evidently of some status. Most graves in Roman Britain are pretty much a rectangular cut with someone laid on their back. They’ve actually built these graves. There’s been a lot more care taken over these.”

Membery believes the people who have been found would have lived and worked in a nearby Roman villa. The villa has yet to be discovered but what is believed to be an outhouse and a barn associated with it have been found.

Evidence has also been uncovered of an iron-age settlement predating the Roman cemetery. Membery said one of the most interesting elements of the cemetery was that it showed how local people adopted Roman burial customs. Bodies were squashed into the oldest graves but laid flat, in the Roman style, in the later ones, and grave goods were placed close to the head.

DNA analysis will be carried out to try to learn more about the people who were buried at Somerton. It is thought likely they were British people who had adopted Roman customs after the invasion.

But analysis of remains found at Hinkley Point found evidence people buried there had origins in east Asia. “They probably made their way to the eastern Roman empire and then their descendants came to Britain,” Membery said. The find means archaeologists in Somerset are hesitant to make assumptions about the possible origins of people whose remains are unearthed.

The Somerton cemetery was found on land owned by Somerset county council during building work for a new junior and infant school. Work had to be halted but will restart later this month.

Cllr Faye Purbrick, the cabinet member for education, said: “The findings are both exciting and extraordinary, providing us with valuable insight into Somerset’s early history. We will be able to understand so much more about the lives of Roman people in Somerton thanks to these discoveries.”

The site’s archaeology has been gathered for further scientific analysis. A full report of the findings will be published in due course.


Steven Morris

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Archaeologists in Cambridgeshire find graves of two men with legs chopped off
Exclusive: men believed to be from late Roman or early Saxon period were found in pit being used as rubbish dump

Maev Kennedy

18, Jun, 2018 @5:37 PM

Article image
Three sections of Roman wall in City of London given protected status
Remains of once vast riverside structure granted legal protection against unauthorised change

Esther Addley

03, May, 2023 @5:00 AM

Article image
‘Rare find’: amphitheatre dig in Kent paints picture of Roman town
Finds at Richborough include skeleton of cat nicknamed Maxipus and potential evidence of figurative arena panels

Harriet Sherwood Arts and culture correspondent

28, Oct, 2021 @5:01 AM

Article image
Amateur archaeologists redraw map of Roman Britain – from home
Volunteers find ‘astounding’ number of unknown sites in south-west from aerial surveys

Steven Morris

12, May, 2020 @11:01 PM

Article image
Archaeologists unearth bronze age graves at Stonehenge tunnel site
Exclusive: experts also find neolithic pottery and mysterious C-shaped enclosure at A303 excavation site

Steven Morris

04, Feb, 2021 @3:17 PM

Article image
Caesar's invasion of Britain began from Pegwell Bay in Kent, say archaeologists
Nearby excavations reveal remains of an ancient defensive base, bones and iron weapons, which suggest bay as most likely landing spot for Roman fleet

Ian Sample Science editor

29, Nov, 2017 @6:30 AM

Article image
Plans for Clifford's Tower visitor centre scrapped after outcry
English Heritage concedes proposal for 13th-century mound in York was ‘too much’

Josh Halliday North of England correspondent

07, Jun, 2018 @4:45 PM

Article image
British Museum says metal detectorists found 1,311 treasures last year
‘Rare’ 1,100-year-old brooch from Norfolk among treasures found

Mark Brown, Arts correspondent

17, Mar, 2020 @11:37 AM

Article image
Definition of treasure trove to be recast to protect UK's rare artefacts
Recent finds have not met criteria as they are made from bronze, not precious metals

Caroline Davies

04, Dec, 2020 @12:01 AM

Article image
Foundations of three Roman houses found under Chichester park
Large properties just inside city walls, identified using radar, would have been equivalent to homes worth millions today

Maev Kennedy

26, Jan, 2017 @12:01 AM