Rural necropolis from Late Antiquity found in France

Burial 1064 with grave goods of pottery, from 5th century rural necropolis. Photo © S. Viller, Inrap.A small rural necropolis from the late 5th century has been discovered in Sainte-Marie-aux-Chênes, northeastern France. Located along an ancient road, the necropolis contains the remains of cremation structures and several richly furnished inhumations. The burial ground is likely connected to a nearby ancient Roman villa whose remains were discovered more than a decade ago.

A survey of the site before construction of a subdivision in 2009 found evidence of archaeological material. In the two seasons of excavations that followed, archaeologists unearthed the remains of the pars rustica (the farm buildings) of a 1st century Roman villa and a Medieval hamlet occupied through the 12th century. Three Merovingian-era (mid-5th-8th c.) tombs containing the remains of seven people, all from the same family, were found in the ruins of a barn from the Roman estate.

Excavations resumed in 2020 when the subdivision planned to expand towards the former Ida mine and factory. Test pits discovered the first early Iron Age remains at the site attesting that the area was settled earlier than previously realized and a continuation of the Medieval hamlet into the valley. A cremation pit and a secondary deposit from the Gallo-Roman era were also uncovered. They date to the 1st century A.D.

The 2020 excavation explored the opposite side of the valley to the 2009-10 digs. The soil there has been heavily eroded, but that had the felicitous archaeological side-effect of accumulating sediment layers over the necropolis which helped preserve the remains. Digging through those layers, archaeologists unearthed about 10 cremation structures. Fragments of charred bone remains were found in carefully cut quadrangular pits and in much rougher round niches that look like postholes but aren’t. There are no cinerary urns and very little surviving bone material. A few nails were found, perhaps from a casket, and a square pit containing a deposit of blacksmithing tools and forge remnants (tongs, metal scraps, slag).

Ten tombs from Late Antiquity were found in this same space. The pits were dug with deliberation in parallel rows. All of the graves contained a single inhumed individual in supine position, adults of both sexes and four confirmed young children. Two adult women were identified by their hairpins and necklaces. While no coffins or burial beds were found in the graves, iron nails and wood traces suggest the bodies were originally buried in or on wooden biers.

The deceased were laid to rest with a variety of grave goods. Ceramic vessels made of local Argonne clay were found at the head and/or the foot of the bodies. They are believed to have contained food offerings now long decomposed. Glassware of high quality and diversity was also buried with the dead: cups, bottles, flasks, goblets, bowls, dishes. Jewelry — mostly copper alloy pieces with beads, amber and glass paste — adorned the deceased. There were coins in the graves as well, some individual, some in groups that were probably held in purses of organic material. Last but least, two bone combs were discovered and one miniature axe interred next to the head of a child.

The remains recovered from the excavation are still being studied. Researchers hope to learn more about the sex, ages and health records of the deceased. The necropolis itself is also still undergoing analysis to explore how it was organized and used, and to shed new light on the funerary practices of the people who lived and died there in Late Antiquity.