ID: SH02_BAR / Sue Howlett

TitleWho was the man in the Mersea Barrow ?
AbstractSecrets revealed by new research in 2021 for stunning new exhibition in Colchester Museum

The first excavation
Nearly two thousand years ago an anonymous individual, now familarly known as 'Mersea Man', was laid to rest under a massive, man-made earthen mound. This barrow or tumulus, which even today still stands around seven metres high, was not excavated until 1912, although several colourful legends and theories had long gathered around it. In that year Samuel Hazeldine Warren, a renowned geologist, carried out a meticulous five-week excavation. A shaft and tunnel were dug through from the summit and eastern side of the mound by four Colchester workmen, finally joining up beneath the barrow's highest point. Further digging soon revealed something solid at the base of the mound, and Warren's excitement was confirmed when a hard, circular structure was exposed. Nearly one metre high, this rose in layers to a central dome, the whole structure sealed with a layer of crushed red tile and mortar. Rushing to the local Post Office, Warren dispatched an urgent telegram to Colchester Museum: 'Found small built structure wait opening tomorrow'.

On 21 May 1912, as an expectant crowd waited eagerly outside the Mersea Barrow, Warren carefully dismantled one side of the structure, built out of Roman roof tiles nearly two millenia before. Removing these exposed a square cavity at the centre containing a mysterious lead casket. This was covered with two wooden planks which Warren carefuly removed. Eagerly peering inside, he could see the rim of a perfectly preserved blue glass bowl, containing a substantial quantity of cremated bone.

Warren's 1912 flashlight photograph of the partially dismantled tomb structure.
Image: Colchester Museum

Although everyone present was eager to inspect the contents of the lead box, the bowl with its precious bones remained safely within their container until safely delivered by a 'new-fangled' motor-car to Colchester Castle Museum. Here the Curator, Arthur Wright, identified both casket and bowl as Roman, but was unable to say more about the bones apart from the description that these were 'the cremated remains of an adult'. It was not until more than a century later that scientific analysis revealed far more detailed information about the remains of the man beneath the Mersea Barrow.

For 100 years after their discovery, the lead box, glass bowl and cremated bone from the Mersea Barrow remained on display in Colchester Castle Museum. Also in the museum were two Roman tombstones, both inscribed with information naming deceased Roman officers, 'Marcus Favonius Facilis' and 'Longinus Sdapeze'. Unfortunately, there was no way of putting a name to the bones from the Mersea Barrow: all that was deduced from Warren's investigation was an estimate that they dated from the late 1st century AD. The report on his 1912 excavation included a guess at the man's ethnicity: 'although we have unfortunately no clue to the name, I think we may reasonably suppose Mersea Mount to be the tomb of some important personage or petty ruler of British race, but living under Roman influence'.

Analysis of the bones
During the centenary of the excavation, celebrated by Mersea Museum in 2012, funds were raised to pay for analysis of the bones. Carried out by Jacqueline McKinley of Time Team fame, this identified the bones as those of a male between 35 and 45 who appeared large and robust with evidence of strenuous exercise. He may have suffered injury in a thigh muscle but, more seriously, suffered from Diffuse Idiopathic Skeletal Hypertosis (DISH, a joint disease marked by excessive bony growths). Unexpectedly, the cremated bones were found to be covered in a strange sticky substance which, when scraped, emitted a choking smell. There was an urgent need to identify this ancient material, samples of which were sent to the University of Bradford where a PhD student, Rhea Brettell, worked on the 'identification of resinous materials in Roman mortuary contexts'. She proved without doubt that the mysterious substance consisted largely of frankincense, probably originating from East Africa, which had been mixed, or adulterated, with a far cheaper pine resin.

The glass bowl containing partially cremated bone, photographed in 2012

These two analytical procedures carried out on the Mersea bones answered many questions about the unknown man who had been cremated and buried at huge cost and labour beneath the Mersea Barrow. He may well have served in the Roman army in Britain or overseas, but early onset of joint disease probably led to his retirement or deployment to some official post on Mersea Island, possibly in charge of harbour facilities or local administration. He was a man of high status and wealth who had purchased the valuable frankincense possibly for medicinal purposes or for a religious ritual. What we now know is that after death, the man's bones were consumed on a funeral pyre, before a selection of them were washed and placed within the beautiful glass bowl. Before the bowl was covered and enclosed within the impregnable tomb structure and earth mound, an ointment or unguent comprising frankincense and the cheaper pine resin was poured over the bones. This could serve no practical purpose but must have been part of a sacred pagan ritual, funeral rites marking the man's committal to the earth, or his passage to an afterlife.

Following the detailed analysis of Mersea Man's remains in 2014, much more was now known about this individual, his physique and state of health. However, one tantalizing question still remained: Where had he grown up? Was he born into a local British tribe (the Catuvellauni or Trinovantes), or elsewhere in Britain or further afield? The named tombstones in Colchester Museum prove that Facilis was of the Pollian tribe in Northern Italy, while Longinus came from Thrace, now modern Bulgaria. Absence of any DNA in the first analysis of the Mersea bones left open the possibility that this man might have come from anywhere in Britain or the wider Roman Empire.

The Riddle Solved: 'Decoding the Roman Dead'
Fortunately, just seven years later the answer was to be provided by a timely collaboration between Colchester Museum and the University of Reading. This research project brought together a range of specialists, including archaeologists, scientists and osteologists (human bone specialists), to re-investigate Roman cremations discovered in and around Colchester. For the first time, the scientific technique of isotope analysis was applied to Roman cremation burials, revealing the distant homelands of 15 Romans who happened to die in Colchester. It is likely that most came to Britain as part of their military service, since Roman soldiers were always deployed away from their native territories.

The resulting exhibition, 'Decoding the Roman Dead', can be seen in Colchester Museum until 6th January, 2022. Glynn Davis, Senior Collections and Learning Curator at Colchester Museums describes it as 'an incredible opportunity to get beneath the skin of Roman Britain. The results of osteological and isotope analysis have revealed a fascinating insight into the people who lived and died in Roman Colchester almost 2,000 years ago.' There are many highlights, but the most interesting aspect for Mersea Islanders is the concluding, spectacular display: the contents of the Mersea Barrow described in the accompanying text as 'one of Essex's most exceptional Roman burials'. Even more exciting is the final discovery of where Mersea Man probably grew up. A fragment of petrous bone, located close to the ear, was subjected to strontium isotope analysis. According to the accompanying text, results revealed that 'the individual may have spent their early years in areas of western Germany or southern Gaul' (or 'southern Belgium').

The Roman province of Gallia Belgica encompassed areas of modern Belgium and Germany, and included homelands of the Treveri tribe, centred around the Roman town of AugustaTreverorum (modern Trier). The Treveri were in close contact with their Roman occupiers, having provided effective cavalry troops for Julius Caesar, as described in Book 2 of Caesar's Gallic Wars, although in later periods they occasionally rebelled against Roman control. To the north-west of Treveri territory was the tribe of the Tungri, around Tongeren in modern Belgium. This was about 200 km from Trier, and the territory of either tribe accords with the locations identified by isotope analysis.

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Map of northeastern Gaul around 70 CE (Common Era, or AD). The Treveri are located near the centre of the map.
By Erren, Hands, 2012 from www.worldhistory.org/image/549/map-of-the-rhine-frontier-of-the-roman-empire-70ad

As well as the scientific evidence, elite burial practices evident in both tribal areas provide strong confirmation that Mersea Man grew up in one of the regions identified by isotope analysis. Mersea Museum's publication marking the centenary of the Mersea Barrow excavation describes 'the location of a series of notable burial mounds in the area inhabited by the Tungrian tribe.' There is subsequent reference to 15 examples of 'monumental tombs or tumuli in the territory of the Treveri'. When Samuel Hazzledine Warren excavated the Mersea Barrow in 1912, he was convinced that it had not been erected by Roman incomers, since 'barrow-building was not a Roman custom'. He suggested that the mound had been constructed under Belgic influence, 'a fair indication of a non-Roman race, although it may have been living under Roman influence.' <(Secrets of the Mound, Mersea Barrow 1912 - 2012, revised edition 2013, pp. 58, 62,33)

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The tumulus of Koninksem, Tongeren, Belgium
From commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tongeren-Tumulus_Koninksem_(Romeinse_Kassei)_(3).JPG

So Warren was correct in his conclusion, although the question of Roman or non-Roman identity is a very nebulous issue. Incomers to Britain like Mersea Man, serving a Roman administration and living in a Roman villa among luxury imports such as the bue glass bowl, would have seen themselves as Roman. Only a small proportion of the Roman army had been born in Italy, but a limited form of Roman citizenship was normally granted to allies or conquered peoples, while veterans of the Roman army received citizenship on retirement. In AD 212 the Emperor Caracalla decreed that all free men in the Roman Empire were to be given full Roman citizenship and all free women in the empire were given the same rights as Roman women. Throughout the vast Roman empire, 'Romans' came of different tribal and ethnic backgrounds. The great success of Rome was to integrate this diversity of peoples within one dominant power. Unlike the British empire, there was less apparent division between the ethnicity of rulers and ruled. Even Roman emperors had diverse origins: Septimus Severus (193-211) was born in Leptis Magna, now Libya, and Philip I 'the Arab' (244-249) was an ethnic Arab from Shahba, Syria.

Since the evidence indicates that Mersea Man was born in the tribal regions of Belgic Gaul, his continental forbears would have been familiar with Roman culture and administration. Arriving at Colchester, early capital of this recent addition to the Roman empire, he might have recognized familiar structures. The Lexden tumulus with its circular mound still marks the barrow burial of a ruler of the Belgic Catuvellauni in the early 1st century, its rich assembly of grave goods including a medallion coin of the Emperor Augustus, who died in AD 14. Their tribal capital of Camulodunum at Gosbecks had been rebuilt in Roman style after Boudicca's revolt in AD 60. It was dominated by the largest Roman theatre yet found in Britain, probably intended as a place of assembly, ritual and ceremony. A temple and portico close by would have encouraged the native population to live and worship in Roman style, offering no threat to the Roman governors and population of Colchester's newly rebuilt Colonia.

In contrast, Mersea Island must have offered the new arrival far less in the way of Roman 'civilization', despite its strategic position and natural resources. Its earlier Bronze Age population left behind ring ditches, cremation pots and an extensive boardwalk partly preserved in the mud. Iron Age Belgic cremation burials indicate continuing occupation, and Roman building materials were reused in the two later parish churches. Two or three villas probably provided homes for Roman officials, but their only significant remains yet discovered are the mosaic pavements by West Mersea church. Close to this villa were two significant burial sites, including the rare, vanished Wheel Tomb, an elaborate masonry structure once surmounted by a large mound. But over a mile away, one conspicuous Roman monument still stands close to Mersea's northern shore. The Mersea Barrow, a landmark for nearly two millennia, continues to mark the importance of the man once buried deep beneath, in a tomb intended to be sealed and preserved for eternity. The bones once concealed within, no longer unknown, have at last given up their secrets. Mersea Man, first discovered over a century ago, may have no name. But expert human knowledge and the fast-developing technical skills of the last two decades, by revealing so much more, have provided the afterlife intended by his elaborate burial.

AuthorSue Howlett
Published28 December 2021
SourceMersea Museum
IDSH02_BAR