Skeletons in Giant Jars Unearthed at Corsica Necropolis
French archaeologists digging in the commune of Île-Rousse on the Mediterranean island of Corsica have unearthed more than 40 tombs that have been dated to the mid-first millennium AD. The skeletal remains of these individuals were interred in an ancient Corsica necropolis located right behind the town’s parish church. The exploratory excavations that led to the discovery of the Corsica necropolis were made in anticipation of an upcoming construction project.
Personnel from the French National Institute of Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) were dispatched to the small village to search for evidence of past human activity, in areas that will be rendered inaccessible in the near future.
Previous archaeological discoveries in the area around Île-Rousse have been sparse, so expectations for this new project were not high. But the unearthing of the Corsica necropolis suggests there is much more to be found at Île-Rousse than had ever been imagined.
Inrap archaeologists excavate the amphorae burials unearthed at the Corsica necropolis of Île-Rousse. (Pascal Druelle / Inrap)
The Unusual Burial Practices At The Corsica Necropolis
Initial surveys performed by INRAP in 2019 found evidence of about a dozen burials. The most recent excavations, which began in February of this year, have been focused on two specific sections of land that were believed likely to produce additional results, which turned out to be an accurate assessment.
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As the excavation of individual tombs continued, the archaeologists discovered something quite remarkable. Rather than being buried in coffins, the majority of the skeletons had been entombed inside a type of tall, sturdy, ceramic jar known as amphorae.
These seaworthy jars functioned primarily as containers of both liquid and dry consumer goods. They were used to store products that were imported to Corsica from Carthage (modern-day Tunisia) between the fourth and seventh centuries AD. Wine, olive oil, and brine were purchased by Corsicans from Carthaginian merchants in large quantities, which meant there would have been plenty of amphorae available to be repurposed as final resting places for the deceased.
Notably, some of the rock tombs were covered or reinforced with terracotta materials recognizable as reused tegulae and imbrices, which are a type of roof tiling associated with ancient Greek and Roman architecture.
The Romans did occupy the island of Corsica and the area of Île-Rousse during the time period to which the burials have been dated (specifically to the early part of that time period). But later settlers could conceivably have reused materials that had been left behind after the Romans departed. Consequently, it would be premature to definitively label the necropolis as Roman, although that may be the most likely alternative.
The Torra di a Petra tower was built in the Île-Rousse commune by the Republic of Genoa between 1530 and 1620 to deal with attacks by Barbary pirates. (Pinpin / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Exploring the Known and Unknown Facts of Corsican History
Located on Corsica’s northwestern coast, the village of Île-Rousse was only formally founded in the 18 th century AD, as an independent port that would be free from outside control. The town maintained an identity as a sleepy fishing village for much of its existence, although it was eventually discovered by tourists and has come to increasingly rely on income from that source.
It was already known that the area in and around Île-Rousse had been occupied for at least 6,000 years. Its accessible coastal location made it an ideal landing spot for ships traversing the Mediterranean from all directions, which opened it to settlement by diverse peoples. The village now known as Île-Rousse was called Agilla in ancient times, and while representing a relatively tiny outpost its strategic positioning still made it an attractive spoil for various powers attempting to assert control over sea lanes.
By the third century BC, the island of Corsica, and Agilla, had fallen under the political control of the Carthaginians. But in approximately 240 BC the Romans supplanted the Carthaginians, and the island as a whole would remain under Roman authority until the Visigoths invaded in 410 AD. They quickly established their presence in Agilla, renaming it Rubico Rocega.
While Agilla/Rubico Rocega was at least semi-occupied throughout this period and beyond, security was a serious issue. The possibility of invasion was perpetual on the open Corsican coast, and the ravages of Mediterranean pirates were another factor that helped limit commercial activity in the area. By the mid-first millennium peasant farmers and fishermen were the prime inhabitants of what had once been a thriving community at Agilla, and it was thought their presence in this particular spot was so negligible that it would be unlikely to yield much in the way of interesting archaeological finds.
It would now seem this assumption was incorrect, which could ultimately lead to a radical rethinking of what life was like on the northern and western Corsican coasts in the distant past.
Press visit to the site of the Lower Empire necropolis of Île-Rousse, April 7, 2021. (Pascal Druelle / Inrap)
A Deserted Village that Was Not So Deserted After All
In the time when the burials were made, Corsican social, political, and economic conditions were in flux. Rule of the island passed from the Romans to the Visigoths to the Vandals to the Ostrogoths and back to the Romans, who returned under the auspices of the Eastern Roman Empire in the year 536.
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How all of this affected the ancient village of Agilla/ Rubico Rocega, which was rechristened Île-Rousse by its French founding fathers in the 18 th century, has always been a mystery. While it was believed the area was largely deserted, the discovery of the impressively populated Corsica necropolis raises the possibility that population density in the area during the mid-first millennium was greater than had been imagined.
This startling finding should invite renewed interest in northwestern Corsica among archaeologists, who may have still more fascinating ruins, artifacts, and ancient remains to discover, if they are diligent and lucky enough to explore in the right places. INRAP has confirmed that archaeological and anthropological studies under their authority will continue in Île-Rousse, meaning it may not be long before new surprises are revealed.
Top image: The Corisa necropolis was unusual as the dead were "buried" in amphorae jars like these, which were produced in north Africa for the trade of goods like olive oil and wine. Source: Pascal Druelle / Inrap
By Nathan Falde