Roman cemetery found at Netherlands highway site

An archaeological survey at the site of new highway construction in Bemmel, in the southern Netherlands’ province of Gelderland, has unearthed a large Roman cemetery with an intriguing mystery about it. There are 48 graves dating to the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D., some with stone funerary caskets intact and containing very high quality grave goods. The size of the burial ground, how complete it is, the quantity, variety and quality of the graves make it unique in the archaeological record of the Netherlands. This was a cemetery for the elite.

Excavations were carried out in February, but kept secret to fend off treasure hunters. It was immediately clear to the archaeologists that this was a special find. The cemetery was discovered just 20 inches under the surface, and yet, it was entirely unspoiled, graves intact, grave goods in excellent condition, even the skeletal remains of a baby, which very rarely survive, were found. These were cremation burials as was the Roman custom at this time. The ashes were buried with grave goods and covered by burial bounds. Out of the 48 graves found, tufa funerary caskets were found in six. Four of those urns were completely intact. This is the first time so many cremation urns have been found in one place in the Netherlands. Also notable is that the grave goods were buried in tiled chambers of their own, not in pits adjacent to the person they were buried with, which was the customary practice.

The mysterious part is that Roman burial grounds were usually just outside the city walls, but there is no Roman city known in the Bemmel area. It would have had to have been a town with a sizable population of wealthy people and by now you’d think some archaeological evidence of such a settlement would have been discovered.

The discovery of the cemetery and artifacts were announced to the public by the Rijkswaterstaat [RWS], the Ministry of Water and Infrastructure Management, for the first time on March 8th.

Among the funeral gifts were such luxury items as imported painted earthenware jars, plates and cups, and tableware consisting of glass bottles and decorated bronze jugs, cups and dishes. Although personal items did not usually accompany their owners in death, the archaeologists found clothing pins, mirrors, a pair of scissors and even a complete perfume bottle with its contents intact, RWS says.

Among the more unusual items were fragments of four parchment roll holders and a stone grave monument with a depiction of a woman.

Such gifts are more typical of Roman cities like Nijmegen, or high-ranking Roman officials in Belgium, Germany or France, RWS said. The best explanation therefore is that these were the inhabitants of a Roman villa near Bemmel, which would make it perhaps the most northerly position of a Roman villa in all of the Roman empire.

The artifacts are currently being cleaned and conserved. On April 27-9, a selection of the grave goods will be exhibited to the public in Bemmel as part of the city’s Romans Week. Next year, the discoveries will be displayed at the Museum Vet Valkhof in Nijmegen.

The Dutch-language video shows the dig site and one of the caskets as it was found in situ and removed en bloc to a laboratory for careful excavation. Below is an English transcript (Google translated, so there are bound to be errors).

We see a motorway from the air and a title appears: Archaeological research. Crossing the Ressen-Oudenbroek junction (ViA15) An archaeologist is in his car on his way to work. He says: “We are actually the beginning of the construction, we get everything out of the ground.” He walks through a muddy pasture and says: “We make everything safe and ensure that there is no more archaeology in the ground so that the road can get there.”

Together with a number of colleagues, he is sitting on his knees in the mud. They dig with small scoops and he continues: “You have a well plan, which is on the GPS. Those are just the rectangles that you expand. You put four markers in the grounds you are going to dig. That’s it. It starts with the beeping of the metal detector. Then we heard a very loud signal and then we were already looking at each other: this will be beautiful. I called my colleague, I say I’ve never seen this. So he came and he said, they look like coffins. No, dude, this is not possible. We spent a week and a half working on those pits and then we found this. Then you know right away that you have something special. And then you’re going to dig.”

The archaeologists are standing at a pit with a wooden box. A crane slowly lifts the crate out of the pit. The archaeologist says: “What we got from the ground is a tufa stone casket. There was a big pit next to it, there were the grave gifts. And then there appears to be a whole grave field. It is just a complete burial ground from Roman times. That is really great. I have never experienced it yourself that you find urns. Then you also know right away that it is the elite. You are not simply buried in an casket. You actually feel as happy as a small child.”

The archaeologist visits the archaeological restorer who is cleaning the casket and continues: “The beauty is, we write history here. This is not written. That is what you actually do with archaeology. Everything that is not known, we make a story of that. This is also what you do it for. It’s nice to write a whole story, but if you find such kind of finds that makes your profession really fun.”