Roman Pot

In 1983, a large number of Roman tombs were discovered near Bemelen, and this pot was one of the objects unearthed at that time. It is certain that this Roman pot was buried in the tomb as a burial object, a relatively common custom in Roman death rituals, pouring out Roman beliefs about the afterlife (Toynbee, 1996, p. 12).

3D model of the Roman Pot

This object belongs to the following themes:



Place of Origin
Schoenmakersbosje, Bemelen,
The Netherlands

Time Period of Use (ca.)
55 BCE – 450 CE


Dimensions (cm)
Length: 14, Width: 14, Height: 16

3D Model

Canon EOS 80D

Processing software
Agisoft Metashape Professional Edition

Yuxuan He & Enchao Xu

The Ritual of Death through the Lens of a Roman Pot

Browsing the 3D model above, you may notice that the Roman pot is not very large. Indeed, it is just a little larger than the fist of an adult male. Remarkably, it is very fragile, not only because it is made of clay, but also because when you try to zoom in to examine its external pattern, you will see that it is covered with tiny granules that seem to come off easily.

Roman Pot

Pottery of this shape was not uncommon in Roman period, so the purpose of human use played a decisive role in shaping its value and meaning. This Roman pot, for example, was used as a funerary object. This custom was very common in funerals at the time (Toynbee, 1996, p. 1), and it has deep historical roots as well as being a vehicle for beliefs in the afterlife. At the same time, burial goods also reflected the re-expression of their status by different social classes (Davies, 2004, p. 52-54).

Part of the death ritual

Even though unfortunately, there are not enough clues or evidence available to identify the owner of the Roman pot, it seems possible to explore the value and origins of the pot in the death ritual of that era if we take a broader view. There is historical evidence that the origins of funerary objects can be traced back to the ancient Egyptian phase that predates the Roman period (Baines & Lacovara, 2002). In early ancient Egypt, the mummification of a human body after death was considered a sacred and deeply symbolic death ritual. In this process, some jewelry and amulets were also wrapped inside the mummy (Ikram, 2015, p. 103-104). And in the tombs of the middle and later stages of the ancient Egyptian civilization, archaeologists began to unearth cosmetics, food, and even large furniture (Ikram, 2015, p. 134).

Funeral rites for a Roman Emperor by Giovanni Lanfranco ©Museo Nacional del Prado

By Roman period, the way the bodies of the deceased were handled during this period was different compared to ancient Egypt. Although the traditional practice of burial still existed, the Social War led to the introduction and popularity of cremation (Nock, 1932, p. 322). Nevertheless, burial goods were still an essential presence in all death rituals and continued to develop further. Funerary objects are commonly found in Roman tombs and are abundant in variety, including but not limited to pottery, clothing, ornaments, and food (Toynbee, 1996, p. 38). These items may have been used by the deceased during their lifetime, or they may have been custom-made by later generations for the ritual. Through historical evidence and archaeological research, it is evident that the Roman pot as a grave good is closely related to the theme of death, and also it is fair to say that this pottery is a microcosm of the death rituals of the Roman times. It is also a clue that allows us to capture traces of the Romans who once lived in Maastricht.

Pottery in graves

Pottery is the most representative class of grave goods of Roman period and can be found in most tombs of this period (Banducci, 2014, p. 1325). As mentioned above, cremation became a popular custom during the Roman period, and for the ashes formed after the cremation, people usually used pottery as a container. This is one reason for the presence of pottery in Roman graves. However, in a study by Biddulph (2005, p. 27) on pottery used as burial goods in Roman period, he found that the importance of pottery far outweighed its use as a container for ashes.

Ancient Roman pottery ©Gallo-Roman Museum of Tongeren

At that time, the increasingly active Roman artisans and the high consumer behavior contributed to the flourishing of pottery manufacturing. Moreover, the categories of pottery were gradually refined to cover various scenarios of people’s daily life, such as eating, drinking and cooking (Dananai & Deru, 2018). When someone dies, these household items from their lifetime will be buried in the tomb along with their ashes or remains. In a sense, this explains why such a variety of pottery can be excavated in Roman graves today. In addition, some markets in Roman period also supplied pottery specifically for use as burial objects. In this case, the pottery was often new and without any signs of use (Banducci, 2014, p. 37). Based on this clue, it can be preliminarily assumed that this Roman pot was not specifically purchased for the funeral, as both the mouth and interior of the pot show various degrees of wear and signs of use. There is a high probability that this was a former daily life object of the tomb owner.

In the afterlife

In terms of religion, the Roman pot was given a more sacred layer of meaning. Like many ancient cultures, the Romans believed that the soul continued to exist after death and needed certain material possessions to aid in its journey to the afterlife (Toynbee, 1996, p.1). And the use of pottery vessels was believed to help the deceased in their journey to the underworld (Hope, 2009). Generally, the pots would fill with food, drink, and other items that the deceased would need in the afterlife. These objects were believed to be necessary for the soul to continue on its journey and ensure a peaceful and successful transition to the afterlife.

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Burial objects for the afterlife

Furthermore, the shape and decoration of some pottery were also significant in the religious aspect of burial customs. The rounded bottom and narrow neck were considered to represent the shape of a human body. And the pottery used for urns’ purposes was often decorated with images and inscriptions that identified the deceased and their family, and they were believed to help the deceased in their journey to the underworld (Toynbee, 1996, p. 89). This symbolism also helped the Romans to visualize the journey of the soul from the physical body to the afterlife.

Symbol of social status

The Roman pot is not only an aspect of the highly complex and deeply symbolic world of Roman funerary practices, which were deeply entwined with social status and cultural values, but is also a rich source of insight into the cultural and social life of the Roman period. During this period, pottery grave goods were used to differentiate social status and highlighted the differences in social classes. The quantity and quality of these grave goods were often determined by the social status and wealth of the deceased.

According to Davies (2004, p.1-11), funeral in the Roman world was a highly charged social practice that reflected and reinforced social hierarchies and distinctions. Elite burial practices were designed to assert and reinforce social status, with burial monuments and grave goods serving as the most visible and enduring expressions of this. Also, he notes that the use of different types of pottery in graves could also indicate social status, with the most valuable and finely crafted pottery reserved for the elite (Davies, 2004, p.52-54). The Roman pot in funerary contexts, therefore, was quite culturally and socially significant, and reflected sideways the status and power of the deceased and his or her family.

Death and burial of elite Romans


In Roman period, the intricate and complex values of the people towards death were condensed in this palm-sized pot, and a pure custom was used to wish for a better life in the underworld. The Roman pot, which has been excavated in Maastricht, is evidence that the Romans settled in the area. This makes the history of Maastricht’s past even more well-observable, thus linking this city’s memories with the Roman Empire. Besides this, the Roman pot is also a window into the beliefs and class differences of human society at the time, and a more concrete glimpse into this profound historical context.

Written by Yuxuan He & Enchao Xu