Fentons Farm – Roman life and death in Sicklesmere

people on site excavating trench

Featured Image: archaeologists cleaning and recording burials on-site at Fentons Farm © Archaeology Solutions Ltd now Wardell Armstrong

In 2017, archaeological excavations in Sicklesmere in the parish of Gt Whelnetham recorded an important and unusual Roman cemetery.

The excavation site known as Fentons Farm is located to the south of the known Roman settlement at Sicklesmere. The excavations in 2017 identified three phases of Roman activity.

In the 2nd century

Several quarry pits were excavated, containing a large assemblage of finds in the back fill dating to the mid to late 2nd century. A large ditch extended across the site, with large assemblages of pottery found concentrated in certain sections of the ditch, dating to the late 2nd century. Many of the pottery sherds were cross-joining, and there was a high proportion of Samian ware. As such, this appears to indicate deliberate disposal of vessels, perhaps as a product of feasting occurring somewhere nearby.  

 A cremation pit was found in the base of the ditch and filled with a single un-urned cremation of a young to middle aged male, before being backfilled. Remains of animal bone were also associated with this feature suggesting that parts of carcasses were included in the pyre or were part of a feasting event linked to the burial.

A later Roman cemetery

From the 3rd to the 4th centuries, the Fentons Farm site was used as a cemetery, with the remains of at least 56 individuals recovered (50 comprised articulated inhumation burials, with a further 6 individuals represented by disarticulated remains interred in other graves).

Exact dating of the burial group is problematic and requires further analysis, but there does appear to be some phasing and organisation of the burials. Only two of the burials (both female) contained grave goods, both with antler combs dating from c.AD 360 to the early 5th century. None of the burials contained any evidence for having been buried in coffins or other containers.

bone comb in soil
antler comb in situ © Archaeology Solutions Ltd now Wardell Armstrong

A mix of juvenile and adult, male and female skeletons were included in the cemetery population. A large proportion of the adult burials were middle aged or older individuals, however, as many of the skeletons showed evidence for poor nutrition and hard lifestyles, this may have affected the ageing of the skeletons.

There was also evidence of deviant burial practices at the site. 5 individuals were positioned with the body lying on its side, 5 others were placed in face-down, prone, positions, and another 5 individuals were found in a crouched position. 2 further burials appear to have been dumped in a burial pit, rather than formally arranged. As well as the positioning of burials, 17 of the burials showed evidence of decapitation.

illustration of burial locations
plan showing the large ditch cutting across the site and location of individual burials (outlined in red) in the ditch and elsewhere on the site. © Archaeology Solutions Ltd now Wardell Armstrong

A large proportion of the skeletons also presented evidence of pathology, both in terms of disease and trauma. There was a high prevalence of osteoarthritis and degenerative joint changes, as well as dental pathology and evidence for dietary deficiency, pointing to the hard, physical lifestyles of the individuals.

It is the high prevalence of traumatic and peri-mortem injury that makes this burial group stand out from other sites. At least ten individuals had been decapitated before burial, and in a further seven burials the skull was positioned between the feet. In five cases there was evidence that this may have been carried out in the form of execution, rather than careful post-mortem dissection, based on cuts to the rear of the mandible.

In addition, seven individuals displayed unhealed cuts or fractures which may have happened around the time of death (two of which are probable decapitation burials) and another had very severe injuries to the face and hand indicative of defensive injury. Of the twenty individuals with at least one fractured bone, eight had been decapitated, and a high proportion of the fractures seen affected the ribs and lower arms, both of which are commonly the result of direct violence. One child may also have been branded on the side of the head with a V-shaped iron.

illustrations of 13 skeletons/graves
illustrations of skeletons in graves © Archaeology Solutions Ltd now Wardell Armstrong

Taking into account the osteological evidence and the treatment of the individuals buried at Fentons Farm, it is suggested that the burials at this site may represent a slave community. Particularly as the cemetery is on the periphery of and some distance from the main Roman settlement area. This interpretation is further supported by the discovery of slave shackles at a nearby excavation site just to the north known as Erskine Lodge and a second pair of slave shackles were recorded in a finds scatter nearby. Read more about the Erskine Lodge excavations.

Following the cessation of burial practices at Fentons Farm in the 4th century, no later remains were recorded.

The Fenton’s Farm cemetery is an unusual site, even in the context of other cemeteries showing a high number of deviant burials recorded elsewhere in the country. Therefore, this excavation makes an important contribution to Roman funerary studies at a national level. The site would, however, benefit from further analysis and research (outside of the possibilities of developer funded project) to fully explore this cemetery population.

All archaeological remains have now been fully excavated and recorded in advance of building work. The finds and remains have undergone specialist analysis and full reports on the results of the project have been completed (and will be made publicly available in due course). The entire archive will be deposited with the County Archive, maintained by Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service; this will be available for researchers and for local museums to borrow on loan for display to the public.

Following evaluation work, the archaeological excavation was undertaken at Fentons Farm ahead of a residential development. The work was commissioned by Havebury Homes and undertaken by Archaeological Solutions (now Wardell Armstrong). Suffolk County Council’s archaeological officers monitored the project to ensure that the site was excavated and recorded to a high standard.

Find out more

Discover more about the Erskine Lodge site, excavated nearby

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