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Entering the afterlife at Thanet Parkway

Updated: Jan 12, 2022

Early on in the excavation at Thanet Parkway we started finding human remains. Some were in enclosures interpreted as cemeteries; some were in cremation urns; some were inhumation burials; some were buried with grave goods, and some were not. These remains are likely to be the inhabitants of the settlement buried over the few centuries it existed, although much more research needs to be done before we can say anything further on that front.

What we can say is that the cremations are Roman. Most of the cremated remains are in urns (more on that in a later post) and the rest were likely placed in an organic receptacle that has since rotted away, such as a leather bag or wooden box. Almost all of the cremations have grave goods, typically surviving as ceramics, glass, and metal objects, but may have included floral tributes or other perishable items, made of fabric for example. The vessels would have been filled with food and drink to help the soul journey to the afterlife.

Ian excavates a cremation urn with ceramics to help the soul journey to the afterlife

We know a lot about Roman beliefs from the surviving writings at the time. Roman people were afraid that lost souls lingering in the mortal world would become restless or troublesome. The cremation pyre and funeral was a very important ritual as the ferryman, Charon, refused to take souls who had not had a proper burial over the River of Styx to the afterlife. If rejected by Charon the soul had to linger for one hundred years in a form of purgatory before being allowed into the ferry.

So to help the soul on its way there would have been a big funeral with a pyre and the cremated remains would have been buried with goods to help the journey be a success. These offerings may have been placed during a feast so they could share in one final meal with the living before journeying on. Wealthy burials could include a wider range of items whereas the poorest burials might be a few ashes in a small urn. At Thanet Parkway we have some expensive types of pottery in the burials which tells us the community living here had enough wealth to comfortably part with such luxury items.

Occasionally we find the remains of hobnail boots in these cremation burials too. In this example below there are three hobnail boots, two Samian dishes, two other pots, and a glass vessel (the cremation had already been removed when this photo was taken).

A shallow square hole (30cm by 30cm) with the rusty hobnail soles of three shoes in the bottom left. To the right is two Samian dishes, and a  crushed glass vessel in the right bottom corner. Another full pot in centre-bottom and another crushed pot is cntre-top.
Hobnail boots are occasionally found in Roman cremation burials

Hobnail boots are not uncommon in burials and crop up all over Kent and beyond. Why they were there is a bit of a mystery - especially in this one where there are three! One theory suggests that the shoes are buried to help the soul with their walk to the River of Styx.

The remains of three hobnails shoe soles. The hobnails have rusted together into blobs giving the shoes a shape.
A close up of the hobnail boots

Over the upcoming weeks we will be bringing you more information on the cremations and inhumation burials at Thanet Parkway.


Thanet Parkway is to be a new railway station on the Ashford International-Ramsgate line. Details on the proposed station can be found on the Kent County Council website here. The archaeological work at Thanet Parkway is being managed by the WSP Cultural Heritage and Archaeology team. If you would like to ask a question about the excavation please email us using the contact form on our main page or by leaving a comment here. Questions about the station and project can be raised with KCC from their website here.

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