Contents of Roman coffin finally revealed

A massive stone coffin excavated last year could have contained nothing but 2,000 years of mud.

But after a year of very, very careful brushing, trowelling and prodding, archaeologists have revealed the contents of the sarcophagus found last July in what is now Harper Road, Southwark.

It was interred by toga-wearers during the Roman occupation, from 43-410AD and discovered by scientists helping to ensure a development did not stomp on vital pieces of our history – and that is exactly what they found – lots of bits. It was painstakingly uncovered and carefully removed over the course of several weeks.

Archaeologists prepare to lift the lid of an ancient Roman sarcophagus dating from the 4th century found on a building site in Swan Street, Southwark, London.

The stone edifice itself is the prize exhibit in the Roman Dead show at the Museum of London Docklands in West India Quay until October, but the material it contained was a mystery for several months after it was discovered. The show is the first exhibition of its kind to explore the beliefs, rituals, deaths and burials in ancient London.

Jackie Keily, senior curator at the Museum of London who is working on the Roman Dead exhibition, said in May: “The sarcophagus was successfully and professionally lifted from its site in Southwark and is now at the Museum of London Archaeological Archive. “It is extremely fragile and the content is in the process of being analysed. Due to the fragility of the structure this is a slow procedure and we are yet to determine what could be inside.”

But the museum has now revealed it contained:

  • A woman’s skeleton – carbon dating of her bones showed that she had been buried between AD 86 and 328, although other dating evidence from the site suggests a burial date of AD 275-328.
  • Gold fragment, AD 275-328. The soil inside the coffin was carefully excavated and sieved. A tiny scrap of gold was found, which may be the remains of an earring, perhaps worn by the woman or buried alongside her
  • Intaglio, AD 100-200. This tiny gemstone is made from jasper and is carved with a satyr and would have originally been set into a ring. The gemstone was already old when buried and was likely a family heirloom.

Curators also found evidence to suggest that the vessel was robbed of its treasures in antiquity.

Approximately a third of the remains are unaccounted for, and a crack in the heavy lid of the sarcophagus points towards a grave robbery in the 16th century.

The structure was an exceptional find for London, where only two similar late Roman sarcophagi have been discovered in their original place of burial in recent years: one from St Martin-in-the Fields near Trafalgar Square (2006) and one from Spitalfields in 1999. The excavation, which began in January last year, revealed a wide robber trench around the coffin and found that the lid had been moved, suggesting the coffin had been disturbed and robbed in the past. The archaeologists hoped at the time that only the precious items were removed, and the less valuable artefacts, such as the body itself, still remain within.

The skeleton survived within the sarcophagus – so it could make a huge contribution to current archaeological research.

Roman London had immigrants from all over the empire and adding to the mix of different religious practices and beliefs. Exotic grave goods from across the Roman Empire are just some of more than 200 objects on display at the exhibition, which examines important questions about death in Roman London whilst exploring the latest research into beliefs around afterlife and funerary practice.

The Harper Road excavation is just one of a string of archaeological projects currently running across Southwark.

As well as showcasing exciting artefacts from Roman London the exhibition will examine the science behind the study of ancient human remains and highlight the rites and rituals surrounding death in Roman London.

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