Graves- Time capsules for the future

Milica Tapavički-Ilić, Institute of Archaeology Serbia, and Timka Alihodžić, Archaeological Museum of Zadar

Keywords: necropolis; Roman archaeology; exhibition; challenge; alternative methods

Viminacium and Iader belong to the most important archeological sites from the Roman period in the Balkans. Both were large cities, with even larger cemeteries.
Zadar (Iader) was the leading Liburnian town. It became a Roman colony during the reign of Caesar or Augustus, and this is why its full name was Iulia – colonia Iader.
Viminacium was founded at the beginning of the 1st century AD and remained inhabited until the middle of the 5th century, actually until the Hunnic invasion. It was the capital city of the Roman province Moesia Superior and it became a colony under the reign of Hadrian.
Burial rituals that were common in Rome, defined by law and mentioned in many written sources and different literature, were performed as such throughout the Roman Empire. However, they were combined with elements and customs of local populations. This was also the case with Iader and Viminacium. On both sites there were both cremations and skeletal burials. Following the rule of burials being prohibited within the city, the necropolis of Iader was formed outside the city walls. „Hominem mortuum in Urbe ne sepelito neve urito (X,1) – A dead man should be neither buried not burned within the city.“
In Viminacium, some 14.000 graves were discovered so far (Zotović and Jordović 1990; Korać and Golubović 2009), while in Iader their number counts up to 2400, discovered either by accident or during rescue excavations. Until the end of WWII, Zadar was under Italian rule and this is the reason why documentation abouth the excavated graves is incomplete. During the second half of the 20th century there was a huge building activity, at the same time enabling expert archaeological research (Nedved 1980; Gluščević 1990, 2005; Fadić 2013; Alihodžić 2009, 2010, 2012). On the other hand, Viminacium was systematically excavated on several occassions – during the eigthies of the 20th century and fromt he beginning of the 21st century until present day.
After such a large number of discoveries, both archaeologists from Iader and Viminacium had an initiative to display the finds in an attractive way. The Archaeological museum in Zadar was faced with the problem of too many finds and their complex contexts. On the other hand, Viminacium archaeologists had an even larger difficulty, since there is no museum at all that would be related only to Viminacium.
Due to all of this, alternative methods for displaying were sought, aiming to reach broad public.
Archaeologists from Zadar formed an exhibition entitled “I shall tell you a story”. A part of it is hosted at their Archaeological museum in Zadar, while many other interesting grave finds are inteded to form a travelling exhibition.
During the first four centuries AD, on the Iader necropolis, the young and the old were buried, also the rich and the poor. People with different occupations were buried, like merchants, doctors, pharmacists, carpenters, gladiators, scribes, worshipers of many different cults, but also people whose ideas of afterlife did not contain any items of the material world, since souls are immaterial.
Burials reveal that relatives of the deceased tried to supply them with everything. Knowing that the dead would continue their lives in the afterlife, they would prepare different offerings. Basic ones included coins, that would be used for paying transfer to the Underworld, a lamp used to lighten the way, all the way to luxurious items and precious jewelry. The majority of attractive grave-goods discovered during archaeological excavations were selected from their grave contexts and scientifically examined. Out of respect towards the dead and towards their beliefs, our moral duty was to at least virtually connect all of the elements that made graves into eternal homes.
By mentioning their personal belongings, their occupations, their age and deseases they died of, we pay homage to the souls of the deceased. Every grave tells its personal story. And by observing all of its components, from rituals to grave-goods, with just a bit of imagination and at least for a while, one is able to revive the memory of the deceased. With such a way of presenting grave contexts, visitors actively take part in observing and they release their imagination.
Part of the exhibition is adjusted to the visually impaired, since there are reconstructed graves with copies of finds, short legends written in Braille writing system and audio explanations.
While displaying the exhibition in many different towns, there was a tendency for each museum to represent only one grave from the ancient Roman period, in order to understand similarities and differences. In such a manner, one is able to understand what are the influences of the Roman civilisation and what are the components of local populations. Finally, one should recognize customs that survived up to the modern day, although sometimes modified. Such an approach made the exhibition rather dynamic and it is being changed, actually widened. The ultimate goal is to make a larger exhibiton in a digital, multimedial form, in which graves from three large, but different Roman provinces (Dalmatia, Pannonia and Moesia) shall be presented.
Since Viminacium forms a large open-air museum with all of the main discoveries displayed in situ, Viminacium archaeologists chose to show some graves as they were excavated. Several of them are therefore displayed within the “Memoriae”, while a few dozens are shown within the “Mausoleum”. The second group includes a tomb presumably representing the bustum-grave of the Roman emperor Hostilian.
The entire set is now under a large construction that enables visits throughout the year. However, an extra effort was made to display fresco painted tombs. Among the 14.000 graves mentioned before, only some 30 were fresco painted. They are dated into the 3rd and the 4th century and belong to the world’s nicest paintings of that time (Korać 2008). Three of them, actually the most beautiful and best preserved ones, include the “Tomb with Cupids”, the “Christian tomb” and the “Pagan tomb”. They are exhibited in the most peculiar way, since they can only be reached from beneath. Visiotrs need to descend into the so-called “Underwold” and then enter the reconstructed tombs. In such a manner and being within the tombs themselves, visitos are able to observe the frescos from the perspective of the deceased.
Several years ago, a visitors’ survey was undertaken in Viminacium. One part of the survey was dedicated to the tombs and their special features, aiming to investigate visitors’ feeleings and impressions after having visited the tombs. The results were very positive, yet expected, since archaeologists, architects and conservators put large efforts into provoking visitors’ emotions.
Both Iader and Viminacium examples could be used to evaluate spreading of archaeological knowledge and its impact on visitors.