402 Cohen Hall
One of the most widely held views about burial in the Roman world is that the Romans buried their dead outside the city. This custom is attested at sites throughout Rome and Latium as early as the 9th century BCE, and is generally understood to be a hallmark of urban development. Conversely, the appearance of burials within cities is thought to be a sign of crisis and urban decay. There is a growing body of archaeological evidence, however, as well as ample literary testimony, to suggest that the Romans practiced intramural burial well into the Republican period, and used it as a means to mark exceptional occasions and individuals.
Recent excavations conducted by the University of Michigan at the site of ancient Gabii, a Latin city just east of Rome, have made contributions to this data. In 2010 and 2011, three rock-cut tombs were discovered within the urban area along the northern limits of an archaic stone building. The tombs consist of deep trenches cut into the bedrock tuff, with niches carved on multiple sides to accommodate inhumation burials. Two of the tombs are a variant of the chamber tomb, while the third held a monolithic tuff sarcophagus. The tombs were constructed in the late sixth to mid-fifth century BCE, following the abandonment or destruction of the archaic building. Characteristic of burials of this period and region, the tombs contain no grave goods, save a few items of personal dress.
Following the use of the area as a burial ground, this sector of the site was never substantially reoccupied. This stands in marked contrast to the remaining areas under investigation. In the late fifth to early fourth century BCE, Gabii was reorganized according to an orthogonal grid which divided the urban area into city blocks. While the archaic sector was incorporated into this new plan, it was never developed; adjacent blocks, however, have revealed evidence of public and private architecture from the Middle Republican period onwards, attesting to the continued growth of the site. The inclusion of the archaic building and burials into the new city points to the significance of these structures in later periods, perhaps as markers of distinction or designations of polluted space. This evidence prompts a reappraisal of the role of intramural burial in urban development which complicates the conventional interpretation of this phenomenon as a sign of decay and deurbanization.