Roman Tombs
Wheel Tomb and Child's Burial Tomb

Wheel Tomb
In 1897 the foundations of a large circular structure were excavated by the Essex Archaeological Society in land off Beach Road. The remains were originally thought to be the base of a Roman lighthouse or pharos, giving its name to nearby Pharos Lane. However it was later found to be a type of tomb known as a wheel tomb, about 65 feet in diameter, with a small hexagonal chamber in the centre from which six walls radiated to join a 3 feet thick encircling wall like the spokes of a wheel. These inner walls extended another 4 feet beyond the outer wall as external buttresses. The circular wall was built of large tiles on a foundation of ragstone and mortar, with no sign of a floor or doorway. The tomb can no longer be seen as this very important structure was destroyed during building work in 1960s, but fortunately photographs and drawings exist. This type of tomb has been found in Italy and Germany and there is an example at Keston, near Bromley in Kent, which is less than half the size of Mersea's. We can assume that the wheel tomb was originally built as a mausoleum for an important family but, as no burials or artefacts were found during excavation, we have no clue as to their identity.


 

The Wheel Tomb, Beach Road, West Mersea, in 1923

The Wheel Tomb off Beach Road, West Mersea.
1923
Brick tomb with a child's cremation burial
In 1923 a new house, Casa Pantis, was being built off Beach Road for Mr Norman H. Bacon, a member of the Essex Archaeological Society. The house was just to the west of the remains of the Wheel Tomb. While digging the foundations, workmen unearthed a small square tomb-like structure about 18 inches below the surface. It was made from flat red pottery tiles of around 26 inches by 11 inches placed on end to form the walls, with more tiles forming the floor. There was a second row of tiles making a sort of inner grave around the cremation. The tomb was surrounded by a mass of broken tile embedded in red mortar, around 3 feet in diameter. Two of the tile fragments bore the impression of animal footprints. This brick tomb was found about 50 feet from the Wheel Tomb but its actual location is not precise as two different reports give its location as either to the east or west. Inside the brick structure was the cremation burial on display here. The small green glass urn, similar to the one from the Mersea Barrow, contains the cremated bones and teeth of a child aged around 12 - 15 months. The urn has a thin lead lid which retains the impression of the linen in which the urn would have been wrapped. It was placed inside a decorated flue tile and covered by a second tile on which stood a small pottery lamp, protected by another tile which covered the inner grave. The lamp is stamped 'IEGIDI', the name of the maker, evidence that it was probably made in Italy between A.D. 90 - 140. This dates it to the Roman occupation during the 2nd century and from the same era as the cremation from the Mersea Barrow. The brick tomb surrounding the burial was destroyed during the building work and no photograph or drawing of it exists, but we do have the description from the builder's foremen which was given at the time to the Essex Archaeological Society. The contents of the tomb were taken to Colchester Castle Museum where they have remained until April 2016, when they returned to Mersea to be on display in the Museum.
The child so carefully buried was obviously from an important family but we do not know who they were.
 

Roman Burial Group from West Mersea, photograph c1923

Above: Roman Burial Group at West Mersea, soon after its discovery in 1923.

Below: Burial urn, lead lid, flue tile and lamp at Mersea Museum, April 2016

Child burial urn, tile and lamp, Mersea Museum April 2016

Note on the location of the Child's burial tomb
The Essex Archaeological Society article written in 1924 places the brick tomb to the west of the wheel tomb.
The Sites and Monuments record SMR / EHER 2109 places the child's tomb to the east of the wheel tomb.
See the links below.


To read more:

Essex Archaeological Society 1924 report on Roman Burial Group

Essex Sites and Monuments Record 2109 for Brick Tomb
( on unlockingessex.essexcc.gov.uk - opens in a new window )


Copyright Mersea Island Museum Trust 2017