The rare Roman tombstone found earlier this year at the site of the former Bridges Garage in Cirencester does not mark the grave of the woman mentioned in its inscription. The headstone is engraved “DM BODICACIA CONIUNX VIXIT ANNO S XXVII,” meaning “To the spirits of the dead, Bodicacia, wife, lived 27 years,” and since it was discovered on top of the remains of an adult human and next to the remains of three very young children, there was much excitement at the prospect of this being the only known inscribed tombstone ever found in Britain to identify the person buried beneath it. Those hopes are now officially dashed because the skeleton belongs to an adult male, not a 27-year-old woman.
In fact, not only does the skeleton not match the gender of the person memorialized on the tombstone, it’s not even from the same period. The tombstone was carved in the 2nd century A.D.; the burial is much later, from the 4th century A.D. That means the archaeologists’ first idea that the gravestone had fallen on top of the grave soon after its installation and was soon covered in soil protecting it from masonry looters is also wrong. The tombstone was looted. It’s just that instead of being broken up and built into a wall, it was reused whole to mark a different person’s grave.
In March University of Oxford Roman sculpture experts Dr. Martin Henig and Dr. Roger Tomlin examined the stone. They noted that the pediment has features that mark it as top of the line: the cresting topped with a finial is a very rare feature and finely carved in the Cotswold style sculpture. The mask of Oceanus centered inside the pediment has no parallels among the 300 or so Roman tombstones that have been found in the UK. As a marine deity, Oceanus didn’t figure much (or at all, really, with this one salient exception) on funerary monuments anywhere in the Roman world.
Someone must have taken a dislike to the unusual iconography, because Oceanus’ face was chiselled off in antiquity. This may have been done when the stone was reused, a refurbishment perhaps inspired by religious fervor. Christianity was well-established in late Roman Britain — five signers of the canons adopted at the Council of Arles in 314 A.D. were British, including Eborius, Bishop of York, Restitutus, Bishop of London and Adelfius, Bishop of Caerleon — so perhaps Oceanus was defaced to cleanse the stone of its association with pagan beliefs and rituals so it could be reused in a proper Christian burial.
In contrast to the sculpture on the front that was the height of refinement and skill in its time and place, the back of the tombstone is very roughly hewn. It doesn’t even look finished. Henig and Tomlin believe this stark contrast indicates the stone wasn’t meant to be a freestanding headstone in a cemetery, but rather set in a wall in a temple or mausoleum. It’s in keeping with the expense and quality of the piece that it would originally have been part of a grand funerary enclosure.
Its fancy original home had to have been relatively nearby its more modest final location because it’s so heavy and unwieldy it can’t have been carried far. The cemetery with the high proportion of inhumations that was excavated from the former Bridges Garage site in 2011 was a walled enclosure. It’s a possible candidate for the source of the stone.
St James’s Place Wealth Management, the owners of the property where the tombstone was found, have donated it to Cirencester’s Corinium Museum who are delighted to have such a rare piece in their permanent collection. It will be a couple of months before it’s on public display. Once Cotswold Archaeology have finished cleaning and documenting it, the museum staff and consultants have to determine how best to exhibit a heavy slab of limestone five feet long. The charming little bronze cockerel, found at an earlier excavation of the same site, was much easier to place.