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Not Set in Stone: Provisions for Roman Grave Reuse

Liana Brent

University of Pennsylvania

In Roman law, the crime of tomb violation prohibited damage to the monument or memory of an individual, as well as unwanted disturbances or unauthorized additions to existing burials (de Visscher 1963; Kaser 1978; Caldelli et al. 2004; Thomas 2004; Paturet 2014). From the time that human remains were deposited into a grave, a tomb became a religious space (locus religiosus) that was legally defined, although its protection mainly concerned the integrity of the tomb structure or monument (Duday and Van Andringa 2017). This paper argues that the use of a legal definition of tomb violation in Roman funerary archaeology has led to the treatment of burials as time capsules, whose inherent worth derives from their sealed, intact nature. Those burials that have been looted, damaged, disturbed or reused are routinely edited out of excavation reports, and their post-depositional histories are viewed as unwanted interventions because these burials were supposed to be sealed in perpetuity.

The invocation of time capsules in archeological literature uses figurative language to explain the exceptional circumstances of preservation that safeguard against the effects of unwanted tampering. Consideration of the archaeological evidence, however, reveals that Roman burial receptacles and tomb structures were often provisioned to be opened and reused at later points. This phenomenon has rarely been acknowledged because the frequency and extent of Roman grave reuse have never been studied systematically at the inter-site or regional levels. A preliminary exploration of different types of burial containers, including sarcophagi, cremation urns, and even simple pit burials, demonstrates that the boundaries between the living and the dead were often more porous than has ever been considered. The living came into contact with human remains at different points in the ‘lifespan’ of a grave, and these interactions should not be discredited as mere disturbances.

By bringing together the archaeological evidence for grave opening and reuse practices in different types of funerary receptacles, I challenge conventional notions about tomb violation in the archaeological record. My exploration draws on evidence from Roman cemeteries that are not usually considered alongside each other, which include semi-urban and rural cemeteries, monumental and non-monumental sites, as well as elite and non-elite burials. Throughout this paper, I advocate for a new understanding of Roman mortuary landscapes in which the boundaries between the living and the dead were routinely blurred in the adaptive use and successive reuse of tombs and burials. As a result, any attempt to write histories of Roman funerary practices needs to carefully discern how legal definitions of tomb violation can influence our interpretation of the archaeological record.

Session/Panel Title

Blurring the Boundaries: Interactions between the Living and the Dead in the Roman World

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