Archaeology continues to fascinate and its draw on the popular imagination is undiminished. This was demonstrated powerfully by the discovery of an inscribed Roman tombstone in Cirencester as the 25th year drew to a close.

Cirencester Inscription. Image:  Copyright: Cotswold-Archaeology
Cirencester Inscription. Image: Copyright: Cotswold-Archaeology

When Cotswold archaeologists found a large slab of stone, face downwards, in an excavation of part of a Roman cemetery they hoped, but could not be sure, that this would be a tombstone. We therefore made a conscious decision to share the moment of discovery – one of the most powerful attractions of field archaeology – with the public. We arranged for the BBC to be on site as we turned the slab over, with the event broadcast live on radio. The response was overwhelming. Not only did the tombstone exceed all expectations, it generated a level of world-wide interest we could barely have imagined. In a single day there were 24,000 visits to the CA website, enquiries emailed from as far away as Australia and the USA.

It helped, of course, that the tombstone was an aesthetic object with a finely sculptured pediment containing the head of Oceanus – in the Greek and Roman worlds the divine personification of the sea.

The figure of Oceanus would seem to be previously unknown from Roman tombstones from Britain – the marine imagery may be an allusion to the watery voyage to the afterlife. Pedimented tombs such as this were doubtless intended to represent much grander temple tombs or mausolea where the dead might reside. The stone was perhaps originally set in the wall of a funerary enclosure where annual or seasonal feasting took place.

The inscription reads ‘To the spirits of the departed, Bodicacia (my) faithful wife, died aged 27’. Bodicacia is a previously unknown name, but derives from a common Celtic root (Bodica) meaning victory. So here we have a woman with an overtly Celtic name living in 2nd-century Cirencester and buried in a distinctly Roman fashion.

Without doubt this is the 26th Highlight and a fine way to round off an anniversary year.

See all the highlights here: