Sir Thomas Browne's works, volume 3 (1835)/Brampton Urns

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Brampton Urns.







Illustration to Brampton urns in The Works of Thomas Browne, vol 3 (1835).png

"A Roman Urn drawn with a coal taken out of it, and found among the burnt bones, and is now in the possession of Dr. Hans Sloane, to whom this plate is most humbly inscribed."—First Edition.

Brampton Urns.

I thought I had taken leave of Urns, when I had some years past given a short account of those found at Walsingham;[A 1] but a new discovery being made, I readily obey your commands in a brief description thereof.

In a large arable field, lying between Buxton and Brampton, but belonging to Brampton, and not much more than a furlong from Oxnead park, divers urns were found. A part of the field being designed to be inclosed, the workmen digged a ditch from north to south, and another from east to west, in both which they fell upon divers urns; but earnestly and carelessly digging, they broke all they met with, and finding nothing but ashes and burnt bones, they scattered what they found. Upon notice given unto me, I went myself to observe the same, and to have obtained a whole one; and though I met with two in the side of the ditch, and used all care I could with the workmen, yet they were broken. Some advantage there was from the wet season alone that day, the earth not readily falling from about them, as in the summer. When some were digging the north and south ditch, and others at a good distance the east and west one, those at this latter upon every stroke which was made at the other ditch, heard a hollow sound near to them, as though the ground had been arched, vaulted, or hollow, about them. It is very probable there are very many urns about this place, for they were found in both ditches, which were one hundred yards from each other; and this very sounding of the earth, which might be caused by hollow vessels in the earth, might make the same probable. There was nothing in them but fragments of burnt bones; not any such implements and extraneous substances as I found in the Walsingham urns: some pieces of skulls and teeth were easily discernable. Some were very large, some small, some had coverings, most none.

Of these pots none were found above three-quarters of a yard in the ground; whereby it appeareth, that in all this time the earth hath little varied its surface, though this ground hath been ploughed to the utmost memory of man. Whereby it may be also conjectured, that this hath never been a wood-land, as some conceive all this open part to have been; for in such places they made no common burying-places in old time, except for some special persons in groves: and likewise that there hath been an ancient habitation about these parts; for at Buxton also, not a mile off, urns have been found in my memory; but in their magnitude, figure, colour, posture, &c. there was no small variety; some were large and capacious, able to contain above two gallons, some of a middle, others of a smaller size. The great ones probably belonging to greater persons, or might be family urns, fit to receive the ashes successively of their kindred and relations, and therefore, of these, some had coverings of the same matter, either fitted to them, or a thin flat stone, like a grey slate, laid over them; and therefore also great ones were but thinly found, but others in good number. Some were of large wide mouths, and bellies proportionable, with short necks, and bottoms of three inches diameter, and near an inch thick; some small, with necks like jugs, and about that bigness; the mouths of some few were not round, but after the figure of a circle compressed, not ordinarily to be imitated; though some had small, yet none had pointed bottoms, according to the figures of those which are to be seen in Roma Soteranea, Viginerus, or Mascardus.

In the colours also there was great variety; some were whitish, some blackish, and inclining to a blue, others yellowish, or dark red, arguing the variety of their materials.[B 1] Some fragments, and especially bottoms of vessels, which seemed to be handsome neat pans, were also found of a fine coral-like red, somewhat like Portugal vessels, as though they had been made out of some fine Bolary earth, and very smooth; but the like had been found in diverse places, as Dr. Casaubon hath observed about the pots found at Newington, in Kent, and as other pieces do yet testify, which are to be found at Burrow Castle, an old Roman station, not far from Yarmouth.

Of the urns, those of the larger sort, such as had coverings, were found with their mouths placed upwards; but great numbers of the others were, as they informed me, (and one I saw myself,) placed with their mouths downward, which were probably such as were not to be opened again, or receive the ashes of any other person. Though some wondered at this position, yet I saw no inconveniency in it; for the earth being closely pressed, and especially in minor mouthed pots, they stand in a posture as like to continue as the other, as being less subject to have the earth fall in, or the rain to soak into them. And the same posture has been observed in some found in other places, as Holingshead delivers, of divers found in Anglesea.

Some had inscriptions, the greatest part none; those with inscriptions, were of the largest sort, which were upon the reverted verges thereof. The greatest part of those which I could obtain were somewhat obliterated; yet some of the letters to be made out: the letters were between lines, either single or double, and the letters of some few, after a fair Roman stroke, others more rudely and illegibly drawn, wherein there seemed no great variety; "NUON" being upon very many of them; only upon the inside of the bottom of a small red pan-like vessel, with a glaze, or varnish, like pots which come from Portugal, but finer, were legibly set down in embossed letters, CRACUNA F. which might imply Cracuna figulus, or Cracuna fecit, the name of the manufactor; for inscriptions commonly signified the name of the person interred, the names of servants official to such provisions, or the name of the artificer, or manufactor of such vessels; all which are particularly exemplified by the learned Licetus,[A 2] where the same inscription is often found, it is probably of the artificer, or where the name also is in the genitive case, as he also observeth.

Out of one was brought unto me a silver denarius, with the head of Diva Faustina on the obverse side, and with this inscription, Diva Augusta Faustina, and on the reverse the figures of the Emperor and Empress joining their right hands, with this inscription, Concordia; the same is to be seen in Augustino, and must be coined after the death of Faustina, (who lived three years wife unto Antoninus Pius,) from the title of Diva, which was not given them before their deification. I also received from some men and women then present, coins of Posthumus and Tetricus, two of the thirty tyrants in the reign of Galienus, which being of much later date, begat an inference that burning of the dead and urn-burial lasted longer, at least in this country, than is commonly supposed. Good authors conceive, that this custom ended with the reign of the Antonini, whereof the last was Antoninus Heliogabalus, yet these coins extend about fourscore years lower; and since the head of Tetricus is made with a radiated crown, it must be conceived to have been made after his death, and not before his consecration, which, as the learned Tristan conjectures, was most probably in the reign of the emperor Tacitus, and the coin not made, or at least not issued abroad, before the time of the Emperor Probus, for Tacitus reigned but six months and a half, his brother Florianus but two months, unto whom Probus succeeding, reigned five years.

In the digging they brake divers glasses and finer vessels, which might contain such liquors as they often buried, in or by the urns; the pieces of glass were fine and clear, though thick; and a piece of one was finely streaked with smooth white streaks upon it. There were also found divers pieces of brass, of several figures; and one piece which seemed to be of bell metal. And in one urn was found a nail two inches long; whether to declare the trade or occupation of the person is uncertain. But upon the monuments of smiths, in Gruter, we meet with the figures of hammers, pincers, and the like; and we find the figure of a cobler's awl on the tomb of one of that trade, which was in the custody of Berini, as Argulus hath set it down in his notes upon Onuphrius, of the antiquities of Verona.

Now, though urnes have been often discovered in former ages, many think it strange there should be many still found, yet assuredly there may be great numbers still concealed. For,—though we should not reckon upon any who were thus buried before the time of the Romans, (although that the Druids were thus buried it may be probable, and we read of the urn of Chindonactes, a Druid, found near Dijon in Burgundy, largely discoursed by Licetus,) and though I say, we take not in any infant which was minor igne rogi, before seven months, or appearance of teeth, nor should account this practice of burning among the Britons higher than Vespasian, when it is said by Tacitus, that they conformed unto the manners and customs of the Romans, and so both nations might have one way of burial;—yet from his days, to the dates of these urns, were about two hundred years. And therefore if we fall so low, as to conceive there were buried in this nation yearly but twenty thousand persons, the account of the buried persons would amount unto four millions, and consequently so great a number of urns dispersed through the land, as may still satisfy the curiosity of succeeding times, and arise unto all ages.

The bodies whose reliques these urns contained, seemed thoroughly burned; for beside pieces of teeth, there were found few fragments of bones, but rather ashes in hard lumps and pieces of coals, which were often so fresh, that one sufficed to make a good draught of its urn, which still remaineth with me.

Some persons digging at a little distance from the urn places, in hopes to find something of value, after they had digged about three quarters of a yard deep, fell upon an observable piece of work, whose description [hereupon followeth.] The work was square, about two yards and a quarter on each side. The wall, or outward part, a foot thick, in colour red, and looked like brick; but it was solid, without any mortar, or cement, or figured brick in it, but of an whole piece, so that it seemed to be framed and burnt in the same place where it was found. In this kind of brick-work were thirty-two holes, of about two inches and a half diameter, and two above a quarter of a circle in the east and west sides. Upon two of these holes on the east side, were placed two pots, with their mouths downward; putting in their arms they found the work hollow below, and the earth being cleared off, much water was found below them, to the quantity of a barrel, which was conceived to have been the rain-water which soaked in through the earth above them.

The upper part of the work being broke, and opened, they found a floor about two foot below, and then digging onward, three floors successively under one another, at the distance of a foot and half, the floors being of a slaty, not bricky substance; in these partitions some pots were found, but broke by the workmen, being necessitated to use hard blows for the breaking of the floors; and in the last partition but one, a large pot was found of a very narrow mouth, short ears, of the capacity of fourteen pints, which lay in an inclining posture, close by, and somewhat under a kind of arch in the solid wall, and by the great care of my worthy friend, Mr. William Marsham, who employed the workmen, was taken up whole, almost full of water, clean, and without smell, and insipid, which being poured out, there still remains in the pot a great lump of an heavy crusty substance. What work this was we must as yet reserve unto better conjecture. Mean while we find in Gruter that some monuments of the dead had divers holes sucessively to let in the ashes of their relations; but holes in such a great number to that intent, we have not any where met with.

About three months after, my noble and honoured friend, Sir Robert Paston, had the curiosity to open apiece of ground in his park at Oxnead, which adjoined unto the former field, where fragments of pots were found, and upon one the figure of a well made face; and there was also found an unusual coin of the Emperor Volusianus, having on the obverse the head of the Emperor, with a radiated crown, and this inscription, Imp. Cæs. C. Vib. Volusiano Aug. that is Imperatori Cæsari Caio Vibio Volusiano Augusto. On the reverse an human figure, with the arms somewhat extended, and at the right foot an altar, with the inscription, Pietas. This Emperor was son unto Caius Vibius Tribonianus Gallus, with whom he jointly reigned after the Decii, about the year 254; both he himself, and his father, were slain by the Emperor Æmilianus. By the radiated crown this piece should be coined after his death and consecration, but in whose time it is not clear in history. But probably this ground had been opened and digged before, though out of the memory of man, for we found divers small pieces of pots, sheep's bones, sometimes an oyster-shell a yard deep in the earth.

  1. See Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial: or, a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk, 8vo. London, printed 1658.
  2. Vid. Licet. de Lucernis.

  1. arguing the variety of their materials.] More probably, perhaps, their being more or less thoroughly burned.