Unique lead miniatures found in Gallo-Roman grave

Extremely rare lead miniatures have been discovered in a richly furnished grave from the early Imperial period in Alba-La-Romaine, southern France. The grave is one of more than 20 unearthed 16 inches under the surface at the crossroads of a network of agricultural roads. The burial ground was in use from the early 1st century until the end of the 2nd century A.D.

Three inhumation burials and 20 cremation burials were arranged around a circular masonry structure 20 feet in diameter. The cinerary remains were placed in pots and buried with grave goods including amphorae, a small iron wine knife and glass balsamaria, cosmetics bottles which still contain a pink powder which will be analyzed to identify it.

The richest grave was a cremation burial. It was furnished with 20 pieces — pottery vessels, numerous balsamari, two bronze mirrors, the remains of a volumen (a tube meant to hold rolled up parchment), a gold ring and two lead miniatures. One of the miniatures depicting a pair of sandals hanging from a coat hook is unique. The other represents four strigils mounted to a semicircular ring. No parallels of either of these designs have been recorded in the Roman world. The nature of the objects suggest the deceased was a woman of great wealth.

Because the burials surround the circular masonry structure, archaeologists surmise that this may have been a private family burial ground grouped around and inside a funerary monument.  A 2005 excavation revealed an important Roman villa less than 1000 feet north of the cemetery, so the burial ground could be associated with the owners.

Alba-La-Romaine was the Gallo-Roman city of Alba Helviorum, capital of the Celtic-speaking Helvii people, in the 1st century B.C., but there is archaeological evidence of settlement predating it. Earlier excavations found roads, forges, workshops and viticulture going back to the 5th century B.C., and the most recent dig unearthed even earlier remains, most notably an alignment of hearths dating to the 8th century B.C.

There are 16 stone hearths, pits dug into the rock containing basalt stones over a layer of charcoal. The walls of the pits had turned red from the heat. They form a line extending over 250 feet of ground, and diagnostic data suggests there could be many more continuing another 330 feet more along the north-south axis.

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