In This Ancient Cemetery, Romans Left Fine Glass Vessels, Platforms for Feasting and Phallic Pendants

Archaeologists in Narbonne, France, have been studying the necropolis since 2017

Glass bottles
The glass bottles buried in the graves were unearthed in good condition. Denis Gliksman / INRAP

Archaeologists in Narbonne, France, have unearthed a Roman necropolis containing nearly 1,500 burials—as well as glassware, pottery and other artifacts—that provide an intimate look into an ancient society’s funerary practices.

Narbonne was the Roman Empire’s first colony in Gaul, the region that includes present-day France. Located on the country’s southeastern coast, the city grew into a significant port on the Mediterranean Sea.

Near the end of the first century C.E.—nearly 2,000 years ago—Narbonne’s residents began a graveyard just outside town, according to a translated statement from France’s National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP), which ran the excavation. The ancient people of Narbonne used this cemetery for over 100 years, expanding it to nearly 54,000 square feet.

A ceramic goblet decorated with skeletons was among the grave goods. Denis Gliksman / INRAP

Archaeologists from the institute began their excavations of the graveyard in 2017. Initially, they estimated the cemetery contained 1,000 graves, as they wrote in a 2019 statement. But in the months that followed, researchers unearthed 1,430 tombs and 450 other funerary structures, according to McClatchy’s Aspen Pflughoeft.

“The number and diversity of funerary structures testifies to a very great diversity of funerary practices,” writes INRAP. “‘A discovery of exceptional importance,’ this necropolis is now a reference site for the study of ancient funerary practices.”

The necropolis contains numerous plots, sometimes separated by “service roads,” writes the institute. Most of the burials belong to lower-class Romans, with tombstones identifying “freedmen of Italian origin, plebeians or commoners and enslaved people,” per McClatchy.

This marble ossuary chest contained cremated remains. Denis Gliksman / INRAP

The vast majority of the interred dead were cremated: Researchers found 1,166 tombs containing cremated remains, while just 266 held bodies—half of them children. As site manager Marie Rochette tells Newsweek’s Aristos Georgiou, cremation was clearly the dominant method of funerary preparation.

“Cremation is carried out on pyres,” says Rochette. “Then, the burned bones are collected and placed in a grave. The bones are placed in a vase or scattered on the bottom of the excavation. They are often accompanied by objects.”

Archaeologists found many well-preserved ossuary vessels—containers for cremated remains—including colored glass urns and one “decorated marble ossuary chest,” per the statement. The tombs also held fine pottery and vases, which may have held wine or perfume, Rochette says. Some of the tombs had tubes called “libation conduits,” which were used to deliver gifts for the dead, reports McClatchy.

Along with practical items such as strigils—tools used to scrape dirt, sweat and oil from the skin—and lamps, the graves contained pendants, jewelry, animal teeth and coins. Researchers also found a number of phallic amulets, which were common ornaments in ancient Rome.

Numerous phallic amulets were found in the graves. Denis Gliksman / INRAP

“Phallic emblems are found on a wide range of Roman objects, from amulets to frescoes to mosaics to lamps,” per New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. “They were symbols intended to bring good luck and ward off evil spirits. As the ancient author Pliny attests, even babies and soldiers wore such charms to invite divine protection.”

Ancient Romans didn’t just leave gifts with their deceased loved ones during visits to the cemetery. They also participated in an annual celebration of their ancestors known as Parentalia, which included a graveside feast. The Narbonne cemetery contains several platforms, known as “banquet beds,” built to host such events. Some of the graves even contained remains of food expressly left for the dead during Parentalia meals.

After the excavations ended in 2020, researchers spent four years analyzing the newly discovered artifacts. While many of these items are now set to be exhibited at Narbonne’s Narbo Via Museum, the human remains await further study.

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