Unearthing the Roman Dead of London

A 1,600-year-old sarcophagus, 28 Roman Londoners, and over 200 artefacts on display in the Museum of London Docklands shed new light on death and burial in Roman London.  
Unearthing the Roman Dead of London 1
The exhibition “Roman Dead” will be hosted in The Museum of London Docklands until October 28. Photo by: Gonzalo Azumendi/Dinodia Photo LLP

In early 2017, before construction could begin on a new apartment block on Harper Road in Southwark, Central London,  archaeologists from Pre-Construct Archaeology—an independent company that assesses building sites for historical remains—were called in considering the site’s proximity to two large Roman-era roads. In June 2017, they struck gold—a 2.5 tonne stone sarcophagus. It was a rare discovery, only the third of its kind to be found in London in the last two decades.

The 1,600-year-old sarcophagus is now on display for the very first time, the centrepiece of an exhibition, “Roman Dead” at the Museum of London Docklands. Through the cremated remains of 28 Roman Londoners found during archaeological excavations of ancient cemeteries and over 200 objects from burials in Roman London, including grave goods, and funerary ornaments, it explores how death was commemorated in Londinium (as London was called in Roman times)

The Talking Dead

When found, the sarcophagus had a half-open, cracked lid and several other cracks, filled with soil and rubble, possibly the work of grave robbers, circa 1600. Too delicate to be examined on-site, it was fitted with a wooden frame and moved by crane to the Museum of London.

Now, the restored and empty sarcophagus holds pride of place in the exhibition space, its bone-white colour accentuated by the strategic lighting, beside a glass case that holds the skeletal remains of the Roman Londoner found inside.

But who was this Roman Londoner? A display note in front of the case says it’s a white woman of European ancestry in her mid-30s.  About a third of the skeleton is missing but enough remained for the archaeologists to carbon date the bones that showed she was buried between A.D. 86 and 328, while dating evidence from the burial site further narrowed it down to between A.D. 275 and 328. The skeleton showed joint disease in her spine and also signs of osteoporosis.

She was also, obviously, someone important or at least rich enough to have been buried in a fine stone sarcophagus. While the coffin was empty of any grave goods, careful excavation of the soil in it yielded other clues alluding to this fact: a tiny scrap of gold dating A.D. 275-328, perhaps the remains of an earring either worn by the woman or buried with her; a piece of jasper bearing an intaglio (image incised into a surface) of a satyr carrying a hunting stick in its right hand and a bunch of grapes in its left from A.D. 100-200. The intaglio would originally have been set into a ring and since it predates the skeleton, it was very likely a family heirloom.

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Over 200 artefacts including cremation vessels, urns and grave goods such as jewellery and food are on display at the exhibition. Photo courtesy: Museum of London

Ashes to Ashes

Archaeologists have found only a tiny fraction of the Roman burial sites in London so it’s difficult to determine whether they represent common customs. However, collating over 40 years of archaeological discoveries and research, the exhibition does point out that the people of Londinium practised both inhumation and cremation, often dictated by status or wealth.

“Roman Dead” has on display various coffins, from common wooden ones to the more expensive stone sarcophagi. There is also a lead coffin lid circa A.D. 300 with elaborate scallop shell decoration. Scallop shells supposedly symbolise the soul’s journey to the Blessed Isles (mythical afterlife paradise), indicating a belief or hope in the afterlife.

Many Roman Londoners were cremated; their remains buried in urns and other cremation vessels. It was an expensive affair then, requiring costly timber and fuel, and likely reserved for important people. The cremation remains on display at the exhibition include a possible bustum burial from A.D. 70-200. In a bustum burial, the pyre was built over a pit, into which the burnt remains fell. Apart from the charred remains of an adult female, archaeologists also found burnt food remains, molten gold, melted glass, and eight fine ceramic lamps, three of which depict the Egyptian god Anubis and one shows a fallen gladiator. Also on display are several glass cremation jars, including rare ones with lids, from A.D. 50-200; and A.D. 70-200 ‘facepots,’ round ceramic pots with noseless faces carved on them, which were used as cremation urns.

Grave Encounters

Grave goods such as jewellery, vessels, food and shoes, were found from both cremations as well as inhumations. There is a jet pendant (AD 250-400) with an elaborately carved Medusa—jet was thought to have magical properties that protect the dead on their journey into the Underworld. A multi-coloured mosaic glass dish from A.D. 200-300, found shattered and then painstakingly put together, glints under the spotlight. However, perhaps the most poignant are the grave goods for children such as toys, miniature vessels, and jewellery. A collection of items—three pipe clay Venus figurines, fragments of a multi-coloured glass dish, the torso of an ivory doll, a bone trinket box, and gold earrings—dating A.D. 250-350 were found buried with a girl of six who likely came from a wealthy family.

Wealth, society and diversity, graves and grave goods help archaeologists put together Roman London. Judging by evidence such as the newly unearthed sarcophagus, Germanic grave goods, and the skeleton of a woman of Black African ancestry, Londinium was a diverse city and one that continues to throw up surprises from its remarkable history.

Unearthing the Roman Dead of London

Remains of Roman London, then known as Londonium, are found around the city of modern London. Photo by: Kiev.Victor/Shutterstock

ESSENTIALS

“Roman Dead” is on at the Museum of London Docklands until October 28. On account of skeletons on display, minimum age for entry to exhibition is 8 years (museumoflondon.org.uk.; open daily 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; entry free).

  • Prachi Joshi is a Mumbai-based travel and food writer who is obsessed with coffee and all things Italian. She tweets and instagrams as @delishdirection.

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