Decoding The Roman Dead

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24th July 2021 – 9th January 2022


Who were the first people that lived and died in Roman Britain’s capital city?

Colchester Museums have been working with archaeologists and specialists to ‘decode’ the hidden stories of 40 of Colchester’s earliest inhabitants. Through new scientific research techniques, we have reconstructed the identity and lives of these people: where they came from in the empire, what illnesses they lived with, and how they were cremated at their funerals.

Discover the lives of some of Britain’s earliest Romans who were laid to rest almost 2000 years ago…

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Why is it special?

This exhibition features over 200 objects associated with the burial of Colchester’s Roman Dead, including more than 40 loans, some of which have never been publicly displayed before!

This is the first time Roman cremation burials have had the scientific technique of ‘isotope analysis’ conducted to reveal where people grew up and travelled from in the empire.

Check out our blog for a bit of background to the project.

Meet the Romans

Decoding the Roman Dead includes 15 individuals whose remains have been reanalysed and interpreted by osteologists – specialists in the study of excavated human remains.

New scientific analysis has revealed several of our Romans were not born in Britain. They spent their early childhood in different parts of the Roman Empire, as far away as western Germany and northern Italy.

Meet the Specialists

‘Decoding the Dead’ is a partnership research project between Colchester Museums and the University of Reading, bringing together a range of specialists to re-investigate Roman cremations discovered from Colchester.

The team includes Roman archaeologists, artefact specialists, scientists and human bone specialists, known as osteologists.

What’s special about this exhibition?

  • Decoding the Roman Dead features over 200 hundred objects associated with the burial of Colchester’s Roman Dead.
  • We will be displaying 15 individuals whose remains have been reanalysed and interpreted by osteologist – specialists in the study of excavated human remains.
  • The exhibition will reveal how specialists are able to decode hidden stories through people’s cremated bone, revealing their age, biological sex, pathologies and origins.
  • This is the first time Roman cremation burials have had the scientific technique of ‘isotope analysis’ conducted to reveal where people grew up and travelled from in the empire.
  • Decoding the Roman Dead includes more than 40 loans from the Colchester Archaeological Trust, including Roman burial goods that have never been publicly displayed before.
  • We will be redisplaying the famous Statue of the Mercury, one of the finest metal sculptures from Britain. He will be reinterpreted in his role as Mercury Psychopompos – the leader of deceased souls safely into the Roman underworld.
  • 10 unique burial vessels known as face pots will be on display. Colchester has the largest collection of these very unusual urns from Britain, which are associated with the Roman Army.


Statue of the God Mercury

This statue of Mercury, found at Gosbecks, is one of the finest metal sculptures from Britain. He is re-interpreted in the exhibition in his role as Mercury Psychopompos – the leader of deceased souls safely into the Roman underworld. 

Tile Tomb and Face Pot

The cremated remains of a woman were interred in this burial vessel known as a ‘face pot’. The pot was sealed with a flagon, acting as a lid, and placed in a small ‘tomb’ made of Roman tiles. A lamp, decorated with the goddess Luna, was placed inside.

Bust of a Child

This ceramic bust was found in an early Roman cremation burial known as the ‘Child’s Grave’. It contained over 600 fragments of a funerary couch that the child would have been carried to their pyre site on, before being cremated and eventually buried on the outskirts of Roman Colchester. 

Coin with Funeral Pyre

A silver coin (denarius) commemorating the emperor Antoninus Pius dated to c. 161AD, with a four-tiered funeral pyre depicted on the reverse. 

Lead Cremation Urn

Lead urns, sometimes called ossuaries, were one of the most expensive burial vessels that could be purchased. Colchester is exceptional in having four examples. The earliest is that of the centurion Marcus Favonius Facilis, whose tombstone was damaged and toppled during the Boudican revolt. 

Jewellery and Amulets

As well as being used for personal adornment, the Romans thought objects such as beads could double-up as protective amulets. These were important in a world where people believed in dangerous, supernatural forces. This group of objects was found in a jewellery box, buried alongside a cremation. They include beads of different materials and colours, as well as a ‘fist-and-phallus’ and ‘cage’ amulet.  

Oil Lamp

Lamps are common burial gifts found in Roman graves. This lamp was probably lit when it was placed in the grave – symbolic of lighting the soul’s journey to Hades. It is decorated with a lion battling a crocodile, perhaps a metaphor for the dangers of the afterlife.

Funerary Urn of Thalius Vassu

This simple looking grey cremation vessel is in fact incredibly unusual. It is inscribed with the name of the deceased who was cremated and interred in the pot – Thalius Vassu. 

Miniature Jet Bear, Beads and Bracelets

This burial group consists of many objects made of jet – a material that the Romans believed was magical and could protect against evil spirits. They may have accompanied the burial of a child, although one of the jet bracelets is incredibly large. The tiny jet bear is thought to have have been included as an amulet and symbol of protection for the child in the afterlife. 

Visit our online catalogue to discover more...

Dead Interesting

Black text that reads: University of Reading next to a shield illustration. The top half od the shield is red with 3 yellow shells in a line. The bottom half of the shield is a white cross on a black background with a red flower in the centre

What did a Roman funeral look, sound, and smell like? And how can you tell just from a person’s remains?

We have partnered with FutureLearn and the University of Reading to bring you a FREE, online archaeology course. Aimed at adults aged 18-30, this exciting new course is for anyone with a keen interest in history and archaeology, particularly Roman Britain. Participants can learn in their own time, at their own pace and on any device with an internet connection. The course is designed to last two weeks with a recommended study time of two hours per week.

Participants will follow research teams to uncover incredible facts about a single individual whose life ultimately ended in Roman Colchester. They will be able to use their new osteoarchaeological knowledge to build up an accurate profile of who this person was, as well as discovering more about Roman attitudes to death and burial processes.

Decoding the Roman Dead

Historian, Dan Snow, visited Colchester Castle in 2021, where he spoke to some of the leading archaeologists, osteologists and scientists involved in Decoding the Dead.

Follow the link below to sign into History Hit and start watching, or register for a free, 30-day trial.

The Ancients Podcast

Decoding the Roman Dead

History Hit presenter, Tristan Hughes, caught up with Decoding the Roman Dead curators, Glynn Davis and Carolina Lima for a chat about the exhibition. Discover more about the ground breaking science and what incredible stories we can unlock from ancient cremations. 

Colchester: Britain’s First Town

In this episode, Tristan chats to Colchester + Ipswich Museums Manager, Dr Frank Hargrave, about Colchester’s long and prestigious history, from the Bronze Age through to Boudica.  

What Did You Think?

Have you gone round the exhibition, watched the documentary, listened to the podcast or worked through the online course? We’d love to know what you thought.

Was there something that worked well? What could we do differently next time? Have you been inspired to discover more?

    Plan Your Visit


    Decoding The Roman Dead has now ended. The exhibition ran from 24th July 2021 – 6th January 2022.


    Colchester Castle


    The display was included as part of Castle admission.


    Follow the link below for useful access information, such as when the museum is quieter, what to expect when you arrive and what facilities we have. If you cannot find the answers you are looking for, please contact us on 01206 282939 or email and our team will be happy to help. 

    Frequently Asked Questions

    Where do I find the exhibition?
    Decoding the Roman Dead is on the first floor of Colchester Castle, which you can access via the main staircase, the glass platform lift in the centre of the building or an enclosed lift near the toilets.

    Is it easy to get around?
    Once inside, there is one way to walk through the exhibition. The gallery floor is smooth, flat wood. There is plenty of room to manoeuvre a wheelchair and the exhibits are displayed at different heights.

    What will I see?
    The exhibition includes a variety of objects, as you can see from our Highlights section. It is important to note that the displays do include cremated human remains, which some visitors may find upsetting.

    Is there a lot of text?
    There is text throughout the gallery. Large panels introduce the different sections, while small labels accompany individual objects. If you find the object label text too small and would appreciate borrowing a sheet magnifier, please let our team know.

    Is there sound in the gallery?
    There is an introductory film as you enter, which includes audio and subtitles. Decoding the Roman Dead does not have an audio guide. 

    What is the lighting like?
    There are no harshly lit or dark areas, but we have used directional spot lights, so be careful not to look directly up at them.


    Our museum shop offers a wide range of products, from activity books for children to jewellery inspired by the Fenwick Hoard, games and fancy dress to replica Roman objects. Whether you’re looking for a memento or the perfect gift, we have something for all tastes and budgets.


    Thank You

    Arts Council England
    Colchester Borough Council

    Colchester Archaeological Trust
    Durham University
    History Hit
    University of Reading

    Matt Langstaff

    Colchester Archaeological Trust
    Frank Knights

    Aaron Watson & Monumental Creative Interpretation
    Peter Lorimer & Pighill Archaeological Illustration

    Academic Advisors:
    Katherine Baxter
    Paul Bidwell
    Dr. Emily Carroll
    Nina Crummy
    Philip Crummy
    Kath Davis
    Professor Hella Eckardt
    Emma Holloway
    Jackie Keily
    Dr. Matthew Loughton
    Professor Janet Montgomery
    Dr. Joanna Moore
    Laura Pooley
    Dr Adam Sutton
    Professor Howard William

    Douglas Atfield

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