The archaeological excavation in the La Robine necropolis, near the ancient city of Narbo Martius (now Narbonne, France), has shed light on funerary and ritual practices of the early Roman Empire.

The necropolis, located about 700 meters east of the ancient city, was discovered in a remarkable state of preservation, hidden under almost three meters of silt from the overflow of the Aude River. With 1,880 structures, including 1,430 tombs, this funerary space dates mainly from the late 1st century BC to the early 3rd century AD.

The diversity of structures indicates a wide variety of funerary practices, with cremation as the predominant method and inhumation as a less costly alternative.

Aerial view of the Roman necropolis of Narbo Martius
Aerial view of the Roman necropolis of Narbo Martius. Credit: Denis Gliksman / INRAP

One of the most interesting aspects of the discovery is the presence of structures known as triclinium (plural triclinia). These are masonry benches where families could gather to hold banquets and ceremonial meals with the deceased. These triclinia were used during funerary festivals like Parentalia and Feralia, celebrated in Rome and other parts of the Roman Empire.

The triclinia allowed families to honor their deceased with shared meals and rituals. Charred food remains such as dates, figs, cereals, and bread found in the funerary pyres suggest that these symbolic meals were an integral part of the ceremonies.

In some cases, families even performed sacrifices to honor the Manes gods, responsible for looking after the souls of the deceased.

Triclinium (
Triclinium (“table bench”) with, in the foreground, one of the pits containing a libation conduit discovered in the Narbonne excavation. Credit: Julien Boislève / INRAP

Archaeologists also discovered conduits for pouring libations, allowing families to introduce liquid offerings directly into the tombs. These conduits, often made from fragments of amphorae, were found in half of the tombs with pyres and a quarter of the secondary deposits.

The practice of libations was common in ancient Rome, and its presence in La Robine indicates the importance of keeping the memory of the deceased alive and paying tribute to them through these offerings.

The tombs also contained objects like drinking vessels, balsamaries, and lamps, many of them deliberately broken or inverted. These artifacts suggest the continuity of funerary rituals during the period the necropolis was in use.

Marble altar with the epitaph of Iulia Flavina and its location in the fill of a tomb (tomb (SF16278)) of the ancient necropolis
Marble altar with the epitaph of Iulia Flavina and its location in the fill of a tomb (tomb (SF16278)) of the ancient necropolis. Credit: Christophe Coeuret / INRAP

By the end of the 1st century, an increase in the number of burials required the necropolis to expand, and new masonry enclosures were created in several locations.

These enclosures, closed off by high walls, were often decorated with marble funerary plaques with epitaphs, which were often found reused in other constructions and provide valuable information about the population of the necropolis, mostly composed of freedmen of Italian origin representing the plebeian class that drove the city’s economy.

With the collections being handed over to the Narbo Via museum, it is expected that future projects, like the exhibition scheduled for 2026, will continue to shed light on this fascinating part of ancient history.

Libation pipe (feeding an ossuary vessel) on a tile-lined tomb
Libation pipe (feeding an ossuary vessel) on a tile-lined tomb. Credit: Denis Gliksman / INRAP

Sources

Institut national de recherches archéologiques préventives (INRAP)


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