Getting to the Bottom of a Grave at Snailwell

6 minute read

Currently on display in our special exhibition at MAA, Beneath our Feet: Archaeology of the Cambridge Region, is an intriguing group of objects discovered in May 1952 at Snailwell, a village just north of Cambridge. Workers digging a drain for a new housing development found a large pottery vessel still sitting upright in the ground where it had been buried nearly 2,000 years ago. Excavations later revealed a huge grave pit at least 6 feet wide by 9 feet in length and 4 feet deep. At its base was a large rectangular wooden construction, thought to have been a litter to bear the cremated remains of the deceased from the funeral pyre to the grave. Through a detailed look at the objects found in the grave, I will attempt to tell the story of the person buried at Snailwell: who they were, what their life might have been like, questioning why they were buried in such an elaborate grave. 

The best-known item from the burial is a beautiful spiral bracelet. Made of copper alloy, the ends of the spiral terminate with the heads of fantastical beasts with huge eyes and flaring nostrils. The closest parallels to this object come from France, and when worn, it must have made an impressive spectacle, with the deep gold colour of the bronze glinting in the sun or firelight.

A brown-coloured spiral bracelet. Possibly made of iron as green-orange rusty deposits are visible. An animal head is moulded at both ends of the bracelet. Excavated from a grave at Snailwell.

Figure 1. A spiral bracelet with moulded animal head ornament. Snailwell, Cambridgeshire. Early Roman. Excavated by Thomas Charles Lethbridge. Donated by Newmarket Rural District Council. MAA 1953.25.

Placed around the grave was everything the deceased might need in the afterlife. They were buried with food, including cuts of meat – chicken, pork and beef – and a plate and two drinking vessels known as tazzas. Perhaps these items were intended to be shared with a guest in a (final?) meal. On the western side of the grave was a pile of smashed pottery. As most of the other objects from the grave have survived relatively intact, these vessels were probably broken shortly before the burial. In his write-up of the excavations, Tom Lethbridge, the archaeologist who excavated the grave, conjured an almost festive image of hilarity and drunkenness at the grave side to explain the broken crockery, suggesting the pots were thrown into the grave after a lively funerary feast. 

Figure 2. Fragments of a bone toggle. Snaillwell, Cambridgeshire. Early Roman. Excavated by Thomas Charles Lethbridge and donated by the Newmarket Rural District Council. MAA 1953.24.1–10.

The large vessel, which was the first thing from the grave to be uncovered, was one of three amphorae discovered during the excavation (Caitlin Brooker looks at this amphorae in more detail). Amphorae were the cargo containers of their day, used to transport products such as wine and food items like olives across the Roman empire. High status burials from this time do sometimes contain Roman wine amphorae but the types found at Snailwell are unusual. Two probably originally contained olives and the third was used to ship garum, a type of fermented fish sauce, a ubiquitous condiment used to flavour meals in the ancient world (they even put it in their porridge!). Just like today, it is thought that one of the ways people showed off their status was through the elaborate consumption of food and drink, especially imported food and wine from the Roman empire. Perhaps this was signalled through the inclusion of the amphorae in the grave. 

Figure 3. A large wine amphora of pink-buff clay. Snaillwell, Cambridgeshire. Early Roman. Excavated by Thomas Charles Lethbridge and donated by the Newmarket Rural District Council. MAA 1953.11 A.1.

Other objects from Snailwell also hint at links with the Roman empire. Close to the cremated remains and the bracelet was a small belt buckle. It is very unusual for the time and can be most closely linked to the military belts worn by Roman troops. 

Figure 4. A D-shaped, copper alloy buckle. Snailwell, Cambridgeshire. Early Roman. Excavated by Thomas Charles Lethbridge and donated by the Newmarket Rural District Council. MAA 1953.23.

At the base of the burial was also the iron shield boss of a wooden shield which no longer survives. The nearest parallels to this type of shield are from the continent. Perhaps the person buried at Snailwell once served as a Roman auxiliary soldier, surviving many battles before they returned to Cambridgeshire. 

In the image on the left, a girl in a black and yellow striped jumper, wearing purple rubber gloves, is carrying out conservation work on a dome-shaped shield boss. On the right, is a close-up of the shield.

Figures 5 and 6. Left – Katerina Theodoraki, a work placement student at MAA in 2023, carrying out conservation work on an early Roman shield boss (depicted on the right). Snailwell, Cambridgeshire. Excavated by Thomas Charles Lethbridge and donated by the Newmarket Rural District Council. MAA 1953.22.

As we have seen, many of the objects from the Snailwell grave provide clues as to what type of person came to be buried there, but we also need to be cautious. Objects like the bracelet, the pottery and shield boss suggest they were powerful and wealthy with possible connections with Rome. But the adage, ‘the dead do not bury themselves,’ is also an important one for archaeologists to remember as we cannot now determine between items which once belonged to the deceased and others selected by relatives and other mourners present at the graveside. Possibly the most intriguing and informative objects from Snailwell are the humblest and might easily be overlooked. Mixed up with the cremated remains were fragments of antler scored with ring and dot and chevrons patterns. They are the remains of at least three horse harnesses and must have been very dear to the person they were buried with to be selected to be burnt with them on the pyre. Perhaps they had been in the possession of the deceased for a long time, hinting at the possible humble origins of the person given such a grand send-off at Snailwell. 

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