Starting in the spring of 2013 and continuing until that autumn the CA Milton Keynes team were engaged in the excavation of the remains of part of the Roman town at Towcester close to the line of Roman Watling Street (the modern A5), which in the Roman period provided a major line of communication between London and the legionary fortress at Chester. The excavations proved to be fascinating, revealing the remains of the stone built Roman town wall and ditch, along with a substantial stone built cellared building (this was the same building that provided the context for our “potty things”, which we described in an earlier post) and three human graves, including a ‘casket burial’.
It was this site which provided the setting for the discovery of our ‘dead things’. Nestling in the base of a shallow pit dating to the early Roman period and reinforcing the sense of the uncanny generated by the stack of pots and cattle skulls placed in the cellar of the building, was a small Roman lap dog (below), the head of which seemed to have been carefully removed and placed at its rear end. That this dog had been a much loved pet during in its life is suggested by the fact that it was buried at all. How to account then for the gruesome, and to modern sensibilities, disrespectful removal of its head after its demise? One possibility is that the manner of the dog’s burial was mirroring a human burial rite, which was relatively common in Roman Britain and involved the post-mortem decapitation of the individual, with the head placed in the grave, at the feet or on the legs. This possibility is reinforced by the presence of a group of decapitated dogs buried alongside decapitated humans from Alington Avenue in Dorchester, Dorset. The precise meaning of this form of burial is probably impossible to recover using archaeological evidence alone, but whatever it meant, the possibility that it wasn’t exclusive to humans is interesting in its own right and adds to the wonderful sense of the weirdness of Roman Britain generated by these excavations and others.