Sir Thomas Browne PageThe UrnsHydriotaphia & Garden of Cyrus


I THOUGHT I had taken leave of urnes when I had some yeares past given a short account of those found at Walsingham, but a newe discoverie being made, I readily obey your commands in a brief description thereof.

In a large arable feild lying between Buxton and Brampton, but belonging unto Brampton and not much more then a furlong from Oxned park, divers urnes were found. A part of the feild being designed to be enclosed, while the workmen made severall diches & fell upon divers urnes, but earnestly & carelessly digging they broake all they met with & finding nothing but ashes or burnt cinders they scattered what they found. Upon notice given unto me I went unto the place* myself to observe the same and to have obtained an whole one, and though I met with two on the side of the dich and used all care I could with the workemen yet they were broake in the taking out. At every stroake on the dich side was heard an hollow sound at some distance, as though the ground had been arched, vaulted, or hollow about them. But many without doubt are still remaining in that ground, and divers were found by some who digged at randome thereabout. Of these pots none were found above 3 quarters of a yard in the ground, whereby it appeareth that in all this time the earth has litle varied its surface, though this ground hath been plowed to the utmost memorie of man; whereby it may be also conjectured that this hath not been a woodland as some conceave all this part to have been, for in such open lands, they usually made no common burying places in old times except for some speciall persons in groves. And likewise that there hath been an ancient habitation about these parts though nothing can be discovered of it from Antiquitie, for at Buxton also, not a mile off, urnes have been found in my memorie.

But in their magnitude, figure, colour, posture, &c. there was no small varietie. Some were large & capacious, able to contain above 2 gallons, some of a middle, others of a smaller sise. The great ones probably belonging to greater persons or might be family urnes, fit to receave the ashes successively of their kindred & relations, & therefore of these some had coverings of the same matter, either fitted to them or a thinne flat stone like a graye slat layd over them; and therefore also great ones were but thinly found, but others in good number.

Some were of large wide mouths & bellies proportionable with short necks and bottomes of 3 inches diameter, and neere an inch thick; some small with necks like jugges & about that bignesse; the mouths of some fewe were not round but after the figure of a circle compressed not ordinarily to be imitated; though some had small, yet none had poynted, bottomes according to the figures of those which are to be seen in Roma Sotteranea, Viginerus, or Mascardus.

In the colours also there was great varietie. Some were whitish, some blackish, and inclining to a blewe, others yellowish or dark red, arguing varieties of their materialls. Some fragments & especially bottomes of vessells wch seemed to be handsome neat pans, were also found of a fine corall-like red, somewhat like portugall vessells as though they had been made out of some fine bolary earth & very smooth; but the like have been found in divers places as Dr. Casaubone hath observed among the pots found at Newington in Kent, and as other pieces do yet testifie which are to be found at Burrowe Castle, an old Roman station not farre from Yarmouth.

Of the urnes those of the larger sort & such as had coverings were found with their mouths placed upwards, but a great number of the others were, as they informed me, & one I sawe my self, placed with their mouths downeward wch were probably such as were not to be opened agayne & receave the ashes of any other after them; though some wondered at this position, yet I sawe no inconvenience in it, for the earth being closely pressed & especially in minour mouthed pots they stand in a posture as like to continue as the other, as being less subject to have the earth fall in or the rayne to soake into them; and the same posture hath been observed in some found in other places as Holingshead delivers of divers found in Anglisea.

Some had inscriptions, the greatest part none. Those with inscriptions were of the larger sort wch were upon the reverted verges thereof; the greatest part of those which I could obtaine were somewhat obliterated, yet some of the letters to be made out; the letters were between lines either single or double, the letters of some fewe after a fayre Roman stroake, others more rudely and illegibly drawne wherein there seemed no great varietie, NUON being upon very many of them; only upon the inside of the bottome of a smooth red pan-like vessell were legibly sett downe in embossed letters CRACUNA F., which might imply Cracuna figuli or the name of the manufactor, for Inscriptions commonly signified the name of the person interred, the names of servants officiall to such provisions or the name of the Artificer or manufactor of such vessells, all which are particularly exemplified by the learned Licetus; where the same inscription is often found it is probably of the Artificer, or where the name is in the Genitive case, as he also observeth.

Out of one was brought unto me a sylver denarius with the head of Diva faustina on the obverse side, on the reverse the figures of the emperour & empresse joyning their right hands with this inscription, Concordia; the same is to be seen in Augustino under the title of Concordia, and must be coined after the death of Faustina, who lived 3 yeares wife unto Antoninus Pius, from the title of Diva wch was not given them before their deification. I also receaved from some men and women then present coynes of Posthumus and Tetricus, two of the thirtie tyrants in the raygne of Galienus, which being of much later date begat an inference that urne-buriall lasted longer, at least in this country then is commonly supposed. Good Authours conceaved that this custome ended with the Raygnes of the Antonini whereof the last was Antoninus Heliogabalus, yet these coynes extend about fourscore lower; and since the head of Tetricus in these coynes is made with a radiated crowne, it must be conceaved to have been made after his death and not before his consecration, which, as the learned Tristan conjectures, was most probably in the raigne of the emperour Tacitus, and the coyne not made, or at least not issued abroad before the time of the emperour Probus, for Tacitus raygned but 6 moneths and an half, his brother Florianus but 2 moneths, unto whom Probus succeeding raygned five yeares.

There were also found some peeces of glasse & finer vessells which may be conceived to have been Lacrymatories or might containe such liquors as they often buried by the urnes; the peeces of glasse were fine and cleere though thick; a peece of one was finely streaked with smooth white streakes upon it; there were also found divers peeces of brasse of several figures and one peece which seemed to be of bell metal, and in one urne was found a nayle 2 inches long, whether to declare the trade or occupation of the person it is uncertaine, but upon the monuments of smiths, in Gruter, we met with the figures of hammers, pincers and the like, and we find the figure of cobler's Aul on the tomb of one of that trade wch was in the custodie of Berini as Argulus hath set it downe in his notes upon Onuphrius of the Antiquities of Verona.

Now though urnes have been often discovered in former ages and many thinck it strange there should be many still found, yet assuredly there may be great numbers still concealed; for though we should not reckon upon any who were thus buried before the time of the Romans (although that the Druids were thus buried it may be probable and we read of the urne of Chindonactes, a Druid, found neere Dijon in burgundie, largely discounted by Licetus) and though I saye we take not in any infant which was minor igne rogi before 7 moneths or appearance of teeth, nor should account this practise of burning among the Britains higher then Vespasian, when 'tis sayd by Tacitus that they conformed unto the manners & customes of the Romans & so both nations might have one way of buriall, yet from his dayes unto the date of these urnes was above 2 hundred yeares. And therefore if we fall so lowe as to conceave there were buried in this nation yearly but 20 thousand persons the account of the buryed persons would amount unto 4 millions & consequently so great a number of urnes dispersed through the land as may still satisfie the curiosity of succeeding times and arise unto all ages.

The bodyes whose reliques these urnes contained seemed thoroughly burnt, for beside some peeces of teeth, there were found fewe fragments of bones, but rather Ashes in hard lumps & peeces of coles, which were often so fresh that one suffised to make a good draught of its urne which still remaineth with me.

Some persons digging at a little distance from the urne places, in hope to find something of value, after they had digged about 3 quarters of a yard deep fell upon an observable peece of work, whose description this figure affordeth. The work was square about 2 yards and a quarter on each side; the wall or outward part a foot thick in colour red and looked like brick, but it was solid without any mortar or cement or figured brick in it, but of an whole peece so that it seem'd to be framed and burnt in the same place where it was found: in this kind of brickwork were thirtie 2 holes of about 2 inches & half diameter, & 2 above a quarter of a circle in the east and west sides. Upon 2 of these holes on the east side were placed 2 pots with their mouths downeward. Putting in their armes they found the work hollowe belowe & the earth being cleered off, much water was found belowe them to the quantitie of a barrell wch was conceaved to have been the rayne water wch soaked in through the earth above them.

The upper part of the work being broake and opened, they found a floare about 2 foot belowe, & then diging on found 3 floates successively under one another at the distance of a foot & half, the floate being of a slatty not bricky substance, in these partitions some pots were found, but broake by the workmen being necessitated to use hard blowes for the breaking of the floates, and in the last partition but one a large pot was found of a very narrow mouth, short eares, of the capacity of 14 pints which lay in an inclining posture close by, and somewhat under a kind of arch in the solid wall & by the great care of my worthy freind Mr. W. Marsham, who imployed the workemen, was taken up whole almost ful of water, cleene, & without smell & insipid, which being poured out there still remaines in the pot a great lump of an heavie crusted substance; what work this was we must as yet reserve unto better conjecture. Meanwhile we find in Gruter that some monuments of the dead had divers holes successively to let in the Ashes of their relations; but holes in such a great number to that intent we have not any where met with.

About 3 moneths after my noble & honor'd freind, Sr. Robert Paston, had the curiosity to open a part of ground in his park at Oxned wch adjoyned unto the former feild where fragments of pots were found and upon one the figure of a well made face; and there was also found an unusuall coyne of the emperour Volusianus, having on the obverse the head of the Emperor with a radiated crown and this inscription Imp. Cæs. C. Vib. Volusiano Aug., that is Imperatori Cæsari Caio Vibio Volusiano Augusto. On the reverse an human figure with the arms somewhat extended, and at the right foot an Altar with the Inscription Pietas. This emperour was sonne unto Caius Vibius Tribonianus Gallus with whom he joyntly raygned after the Decii about the yeare 254; both he himself and his father were slaine by the Emperour Æmilianus; by the radiated crowne this peece should be coyned after his death & consecration, but in whose time it is not cleere in historie; but probably this ground had been opened & digged before though out of the memorie of man, for we found divers small peeces of pots, sheep's bones, & sometimes an oyster shell a yard deep in the earth.

F I N I S.


* Additional passages from MS Rawlinson D 391 are in maroon. The transcription generally follows MS Sloane 1862, except that the nearly universal "wee", "butt" and "pott" (and similar spellings) have been transcribed "we", "but", "pot", etc.

This page is by James Eason.