Sensational Roman wagon grave found in Aquincum

On 22 June 2017 at 10 am, the Aquincum Museum is organising a press breakfast connected to the recently discovered wagon grave.

With a horse-drawn carriage to the afterlife

Sensational Roman wagon grave found in Aquincum

Budapest, 22 June 2017

Archaeologists of the Budapest History Museum and the Hungarian National Museum have found a unique wagon grave on what is now the Csillaghegy Lido (Strandfürdő) in the 3rd district of Budapest in spring 2017 near ancient Aquincum. The wagon was richly decorated with bronze figural ornaments (deities and mythological creatures). Previously only one such wagon had been found in Budapest.

Archaeologists of the Budapest History Museum were carrying out preventive excavations during the spring connected to the development of the Csillaghegy Lido. The archaeologists only had limited information on what remains to expect on the site.

“Although there are many Roman remains nearby, previous excavations around the Lido had found sites from the prehistoric, Hungarian conquest and Árpád dynasty periods. Therefore, it came as a great surprise that inside the large, quadrangular pit directly at the bottom of the hillside we found the remains of a four-wheeled Roman wagon and two carthorses” said the excavation leader, archaeologist Lóránt Vass of the Budapest History Museum.

In the nearly 1700-year-old burial, the wagon’s iron and bronze parts and the fine bronze ornaments decorating it survived. The excavation required great care and expertise and was carried out by an official partnership of the Budapest History Museum and the Hungarian National Museum. Conservators of the two institutions worked together onsite on the conservation and removal of the metal finds.

“The use of wagons in burials is foreign to the Romans’ puritanical custom concerning grave goods offering. This expensive ritual was not the custom of the Romans, but the elite of the Celtic Eravisci during the Imperial period. Though members of the pro-Roman elite formally strove to emulate the customs of the conquering Romans, when it came to matters of death, their ancestors’ beliefs about the afterlife broke through the veneer of ‘Romanness’. The wagon and the carthorses were buried in the pit as tools for the journey to the afterlife” said archaeologist Zsolt Mráv of the Hungarian National Museum, an expert on horse and wagon burials in Pannonia, who coordinated the excavation of the wagon.  We do not know yet to whose grave the wagon belonged, but the child’s grave next to it has to be connected. In the Roman period, it was generally rare for only one burial to be made in a large area. This then points to the presence of another, so far unknown Roman cemetery, villa estate or settlement in the immediate environs of the modern Lido.

According to Mráv, the Csillaghegy wagon – with the quality and quantity of the ornaments – can rightly be considered the most sensational find in recent times from Roman Aquincum. The buried wagon would have been a luxury vehicle in its day. Even its iron parts had metal inlay decorations, and the rear of the wagon had a ‘gallery of statues’ with 10 bronze statuettes depicting Bacchus and his entourage. Bacchus was not only the god of wine, but a deity who guaranteed his worshippers joy both in life and the afterlife. The statuettes also depicted the god’s entourage: the tigers domesticated by him, his childhood playfellow, the goat-legged, flute-playing Pan, the satyrs and the licentious Bacchantes.

This is the first time that an archaeological excavation found the body of a Roman wagon; so, following the lengthy conservation process, it will be possible to reconstruct almost every detail of the Csillaghegy wagon.

Following restoration, the parts of Csillaghegy wagon and their reconstructions are expected to be exhibited in the Aquincum Museum within the next two years, but for one day during the Night of the Museums on 24 June 2017, visitors will be able to see three special, now restored bronze statuettes. During the Night of the Museums the Hungarian National Museum will host a presentation on wagon burials in the Imperial period from 22:00.