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Roman London: the rites stuff

A rare stone Roman sarcophagus forms the centrepiece of an exhibition at the Museum of London

12 July, 2018 — By Jane Clinton

Conservator Luisa Duarte holds a skull

SHE lay undisturbed for more than 1,000 years as the city of London grew and developed above her. And it would take a housing development to finally bring her remains and her story into the 21st century.

For in the summer of 2017 a 1,600-year-old Roman sarcophagus was unearthed, in Harper Street, Southwark, south London. Within it was the skeleton of a woman. It is only the third sarcophagus of its kind to have been found in London in recent years. It weighed 25 tons and had been buried into the foundations of an earlier mausoleum.

This rare discovery, unearthed during construction work, is the centrepiece of an exhibition, Roman Dead, at the Museum of London, Docklands, which looks at death, burial rites and how Roman London, or Londinium as it was called, dealt with its dead. It offers us a fascinating glimpse into funerary ritual at the time, taking into account the latest research into beliefs around afterlife and burial practice.

The dating of the Harper Road skeleton showed that she had been buried between ad86 and 328 although other dating evidence from the site also suggests a burial date of ad275-328. Some of her bones were missing. Judged to be in her 40s or 50s, further bone analysis showed she had suffered a bad back, possibly because of osteoporosis.

A jet Medusa pendant

Sadly, the woman’s resting place had not been entirely peaceful. It is thought some time in the 1600s grave robbers struck and some items may have been taken.

More intrigue, however, lies with the tiny piece of gold leaf which was eventually retrieved from the sarcophagus. Could it have been from a piece of an earring? Had the grave robbers taken other treasures buried with the woman?

What is known is that to have such a grand sarcophagus suggested status. Most people at the time were buried in wooden coffins. There was also very little stone in London so this Ancaster stone had to be transported from Lincolnshire.

In all, there are more than 200 items on display in this exhibition gathered from the museum’s vast and world-renowned collection. Some items are seen for the first time and the exhibition brings together 40 years of research.

There are 11 skeletons from four ancient cemeteries that bordered Londinium.

Traditionally lying on the outskirts of the city, as the city grew the cemeteries became, not without but within the city. The dead and the living existed cheek by jowl.

An intaglio discovered within the Roman sarcophagus

Alongside the skeletons are burial items, like the exquisite ring with a depiction of two mice eating – referencing a scene from Horace’s Satires.

There are also amphorae (jugs), other jewellery and beautiful glassware alongside cremation urns of varying sizes and shapes and even hundreds of frog skeletons recovered from what is thought to have been a large dip in the ground where the creatures fell in and perished.

The charred remains of food and vessels that may have contained drinks also give us hints as to how people prepared their friends and family for their journey to the afterlife.

It is another woman’s skeleton in the exhibition which shows how London’s population was diverse even in Roman times. This particular woman was found in Lant Street, Southwark.

Pipe clay figurine, possibly a toy. Photo: Museum of London

Because her skeleton was particularly well-preserved it underwent a series of scientific analyses and forensic techniques.

Judging by the shape and appearance of her skull the experts were first able to trace her ancestry to be black African. By measuring her oxygen isotopes they also estimated that she spent her childhood in the southern Mediterranean.

Light stable isotope analyses is used to study people’s diet and their place of childhood origin. Scientists analyse particular chemicals which become incorporated into people’s skeletons and teeth through the foods they eat and the water they drink. Carbon and nitrogen isotopes can also give clues about the person’s diet. By analysing oxygen, strontium and lead in the bones and dental enamel more detail about where people grew up can also be found.

A glass vase

More and more mysteries from history can and will be unlocked as scientific analysis continues to develop.

As one of the curators of Roman Dead, Dr Jackie Keily, attests: “Archaeology in London is a resource that keeps on producing new and exciting discoveries, such as the Harper Road sarcophagus. We hope our visitors will gain an insight into Roman Londoners’ relationship with death through these wonderful artefacts and through the expert analysis that has been undertaken on the skeletal remains recovered from ancient London.”

Roman Dead is at the Museum of London, Docklands, until October 28, 2018. Entry is free. For more information go to: www.museumoflondon.org.uk/romandead

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