One of the commemorative inscribed plaques found by INRAP archaeologists in the 2000-sqm necropolis at the entrance to the city of Narbonne.

The Narbonne necropolis

An ancient necropolis is being excavated by a team of the French Institute of Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) at the entrance to Narbonne (Aude). The site is located next to the nearly completed Narbo Via archaeological museum, which is due to open this year. Owing to its large size and exceptional state of preservation, the necropolis is a major discovery for French archaeology, and in particular for the study of funeral practices in Roman Gaul.

Narbonne was the first colony (colonia Narbo Martius) established in Gaul after it was conquered by the Romans in 125 BC. A century later, Augustus made Narbo Martius capital of the Gallia Narbonensis province, which extended from Frejus to Toulouse and the Pyrenees, and from the Mediterranean to Vienne and Geneva. At the crossroads of the Via Domitia and Via Aquitania and also a river- and sea-port, it became a flourishing economic centre.

The burial site is located 600 metres east of the ancient city and extends over an area of 2,000 sq metres. It was in use in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. So far some 300 graves have been identified, out of an estimated thousand. The necropolis is made up of stonework enclosures laid out side by side in a regular pattern, with service roads.

Distinct groups can be distinguished, and comparing their respective practices is of great interest. Small monuments adorned with painted plaster and bearing plaques (1) have been erected on some of the plots. Their epitaphs document the lives of urban plebeians (slaves and emancipated people), most of them of Italian origin. They also testify to the economic prosperity of those buried there. Cremation was the usual practice: there are numerous pyres and simple graves, often protected by a tiled covering or casing. Inside are burned bones placed in a container, together with glas or ceramic vessels, and sometimes jugs and lamps, highlighting the importance of liquid offerings (such as wine and perfume) in honour of the deceased. Charred fruit (including dates and figs), personal objects (ornaments and cosmetics) have also been found among the ashes of the pyres.

The exceptional state of preservation of this necropolis is due to its proximity to a branch of the River Aude (now Canal de la Robine), which protected it with a three-metre-thick layer of silt deposited by the river's high waters and it sealed during recurring floods. It is now possible to observe the phases of funerary practices and commemorative cults. This allows the rare opportunity to analyse vestiges of offerings and meals consumed at the grave, not only at the time of cremation and burial, but also at commemorative feasts.

Libation conduits, which are otherwise rare in Gaul, were used in one out of three graves in Narbonne. Consisting of ceramic tubes or bottomless amphorae inserted into the grave with the top sticking out above the ground, they allowed offerings to be made as close to the deceased as possible. Some still contain libation-cups and shells.
But the Narbonne necropolis is essential not only for studying funerary practices in Roman Gaul, but also to get to know more about the plebeian class.

Nicole Benazeth

All pix: © Denis Gliksman, Inrap