Burials and Brooches Collective Versus Personal Identity – Dr. Stijn Heeren (Amsterdam)

Brooches are considered to be an important indicator of the bearers’ identity (Jundi/Hill 1998; Eckardt 2005).  Since identity is sometimes expressed in the burial ritual, one would expect to find brooches in cemeteries. However, brooches seem to be virtually absent from cemeteries in the Dutch river area. Given the good properties of the riverine clay soils for preserving metal, this is surprising. Some sites in the Dutch river area yielded over one thousand brooches, but almost all come from settlements and military camps and only a very small number from cemeteries. At the same time, other classes of grave goods (like ceramics) are present in large numbers. The sets of ceramics are quite uniform sets of a plate, a beaker and a jug. These standardized sets of ceramics and the absence of items referring to a person’s identity (fingerrings, brooches) can be understood as an indication of deliberately anonymising the deceased. The ritual at these rural sites is aimed at the transformation of the deceased into an anonymous ancestor, instead of acknowledging the person’s identity. Since this is a new phenomenon (the burial ritual in the Late Iron Age is very different), this could relate to the establishment of the Roman military camps in this area.

There are some exceptions, and these are found in and near the town of Nijmegen. The city population handled brooches very differently – as much as five brooches were placed in individual graves sometimes. Clearly, their grave ritual did not limit the expression of personal identity.

Aarts, J.G. and Heeren, S. (in prep.): Buried Batavians: mortuary rituals of a rural frontier community

Eckardt, H. (2005) The social distribution of Roman artefacts: The case of nail-cleaners and brooches in Britain. Journal of Roman Archaeology 18, 139-160.

Jundi, S. and Hill, J. D. (1998) Brooches and identity in first century AD Britain: more than meets the eye? In C. Forcey, J. Hawthorne and R. Witcher (eds.) TRAC 1997. Proceedings of the seventh annual theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference Nottingham 1997, 125-137, Oxford, Oxbow Books.

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