Charred remains hold clues to a Celtic collaborator: The king cremated on a funeral pyre at St Albans may have been Cymbeline's son. David Keys reports

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The Independent Online
ARCHAEOLOGISTS have unlocked the secrets of what they believe is the most important Celtic tomb found in Britain.

Research on material taken from a royal burial site near St Albans, Hertfordshire, suggests the Celtic king buried there almost 2,000 years ago was a collaborator with the Romans and perhaps the son of the ruler Cunobelin, later known by Shakespeare as Cymbeline.

Hundreds of finds from the tomb suggest the long-forgotten king enjoyed considerable wealth and that his death was marked by human sacrifices and massive destruction of valuables. Months of painstaking laboratory work in the Verulamium Museum at St Albans has been needed because after the king had lain in state, he and all his possessions were burnt on a pyre, leaving a charred mass that has been picked apart using scalpels, X- ray equipment and an air-abrasive unit, a kind of sophisticated sand-blaster.

It appears the dead king lay in state on an iron-framed bed decorated with ivory and silver, surrounded by precious objects, including a chain-mail tunic, silverware, including cups, a casket with solid silver handles and riding equipment inlaid with bronze and enamel.

The king also possessed a 30- piece Roman dinner service comprising cups, plates and bowls manufactured in potteries in the Rhineland and south of France and four Italian wine amphorae, each almost one metre (3ft) tall and capable of holding 12 litres (2.64 gallons) of wine.

The pottery has enabled ceramics experts to date the funeral at between AD45 and AD50, that is between two and seven years after the Roman conquest of Britain by Emperor Claudius.

Some archaeologists have concluded that the St Albans tomb may be that of Adminius, a Roman collaborator who may have been allowed to rule part of the most important native kingdom in the newly conquered Britain.

Adminius was a son of pre-Roman Britain's most important king, Cunobelin. For most of his reign (cAD7-41) Cunobelin - king of a tribal confederacy which included the powerful Catuvelauni tribe, based in Verulamium (St Albans) - was moderately pro-Roman.

But in the late AD30s, relations deteriorated. Cunobelin expelled his pro-Roman son. Adminius went to the Roman emperor Caligula, pledged loyalty to him and may well have asked for military help to put him on his father's throne.

In AD43 Caligula's successor, Claudius, did launch an invasion. Adminius's anti-Roman brother, Caractacus, was by then joint- ruler, but fled to Wales when the Roman military arrived. Archaeologists have speculated that Adminius was then placed on the Catuvelaunian throne, that his royal palace was near St Albans and that it is his tomb they have now discovered.

On the site of the royal funeral pyre, immediately adjacent to the tomb, a team led by Rosalind Niblett, an archaeologist from the Verulamium Museum, has also unearthed the remains of a great Romano-Celtic temple built about 40 years later. The temple faces towards the tomb and the whole complex was surrounded by an impressive enclosure ditch. The enclosure entrance was flanked by human and animal sacrifices - three women on one side and several horses and cattle and one human on the other. All were placed in the ditch at the time of the funeral.

The temple - 18m (60ft) long and 15m (50ft) wide - is thought to have continued in use until the introduction of Christianity in the early fourth century.

The royal tomb and its temple would have been a focus of veneration for the people of Roman St Albans, perhaps because the collaborator king had ensured that his city was well treated by the Romans. Indeed, Verulamium was the first native town in Britain to be accorded the status of municipium (self-governing city) by the imperial authorities.

With his temple overlooking the town, he would probably have been regarded as its pagan protective hero - the equivalent to a patron saint. It is likely that the Christian cult of St Alban was deliberately developed - probably in the fourth century - to replace him as the community's intermediary with God.

Besides being rich in finds, the St Albans royal tomb is also helping archaeologists to piece together the rituals involved in a great Celtic state funeral. They believe that the proceedings were carried out in seven stages.

First, within a five-acre (two hectare) enclosure, a great eight- metre (26ft) square pit was dug and a small wooden building was constructed within it. Second, the body seems to have been placed on a bed within the building and probably lay in state there for several weeks.

His possessions, with funerary offerings, were placed around him in the building. Most of his possessions were then ritually smashed inside the building. The corpse and contents were then burnt nearby on a great funeral pyre. Human and animal sacrifices were probably also made.

The charred bones and remains were then placed in a separate pit adjacent to the main one and the funeral building demolished by pelting it with heavy boulders. Lastly, both pits were covered with a great square funerary mound.

'Bearing in mind its archaeological and historical implications, this is the most important Celtic tomb ever found in Britain,' Dr Martin Henig, an Oxford University archaeologist who specialises in the study of Romano-British religious practices, said.

(Photograph and graphic omitted)