Many thousands of burials have been excavated from across the Roman world, documenting a variety of funerary practices and rites. Individual burials, however, sometimes stand out for their atypical characteristics. The authors report the discovery of a cremation burial from ancient Sagalassos that differs from contemporaneous funerary deposits. In this specific context, the cremated human remains were not retrieved but buried in situ , surrounded by a scattering of intentionally bent nails, and carefully sealed beneath a raft of tiles and a layer of lime. For each of these practices, textual and archaeological parallels can be found elsewhere in the ancient Mediterranean world, collectively suggesting that magical beliefs were at work.
Occasionally, the archaeological record allows us a glimpse beyond the mere material and into the mindset of people in the past. A cremation burial from the eastern necropolis of Sagalassos, south-west Turkey, provides one such opportunity, documenting funerary practices that clearly deviate from other contemporaneous burials at the site. Such irregular practices strongly suggest that a non-normative approach was taken to the burial of this particular individual, inviting us to seek an explanation based in ‘unsanctioned’ (Phillips Reference Phillips III, Faraone and Obbink 1991: 262) or unconventional liturgy. Specifically, we look to a set of beliefs that the former inhabitants of Sagalassos would probably have labelled ‘magic’. But what purpose did magic fulfil in ancient communities in general, and in this case in particular? In this article, we seek to address these questions by deconstructing the unique characteristics of this particular burial and contextualising it within current research on non-normative burials and the materiality of ancient magical practices.