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Noble Roman
discovered in London

Visitors view the Roman Sarcophagus at the Museum of London

Throughout 1999, the Museum of London Archaeology Service (MoLAS), acting on behalf of the Spitalfields Development Group, have been, and will be, excavating a large area of Spitalfields Market. This is the culmination of a 20-year programme of investigation into an area of London, just outside the old Bishopsgate, which takes its name from the now buried Medieval Priory and Hospital of St. Mary Spital.

Recent excavation of a Roman cemetery lying to the south of the medieval priory graveyard has revealed a huge limestone sarcophagus, dubbed a "most sensational find" by its discoverers. From the receptacle's size and rarity, the occupant has been identified as a Roman Londoner of particular wealth and eminence: perhaps even a member of the Governing family.

The sarcophagus was buried, probably beneath a long since disappeared monumental memorial, in a prominent position immediately adjoining the Ermine Street. Its neighbour was the large mausoleum of at least one other distinguished Roman. This was badly damaged, but smashed fragments of limestone may indicate a second sarcophagus. There was also a child buried here. Surrounding graves (at least twenty-one) were mere humble holes in the ground containing east-west orientated burials of both adults and children. A few nails were all that remained to testify to their meagre wooden coffins.

As only the third such burial ever found in London, the sarcophagus was quickly removed to the Museum of London for further examination under controlled conditions. On 14th April, the lid was raised. Inside was discovered a beautiful leaden coffin, richly ornamented with a beaded diamond and triangle pattern surrounding scalloped shells. This shell-burial association is believed to relate to the voyage of the dead by sea to the underworld. A jet phial was found nearby. The whole was covered with a layer of mud which may have been the remains of flowers offered at the funeral. The occupant was a woman in her early twenties. Her head lay on a bed of bay leaves, believed to have formed a head-dress or, more likely, a cushion. In 3cm of silt beneath the skeleton were hidden the remains of textiles, including a gold thread, probably all that was left of the lady's clothes or her shroud.

Other associated burial objects, found outside the sarcophagus, include a second phial of tubular glass with a jet rod that acted as both spatula and stopper. This has dated the lady's death to the 4th century A.D. It is unique in Britain and probably originated in Germany or France. There was also a heavy jet pin and a flat circular ring. All these objects appear to have been for use with cosmetics or as ornaments. They may have been the lady's most treasured possessions, though there is another possible explanation. Jet was believed to keep away evil spirits and ensure a safe journey to underworld, so perhaps the objects were used in the preparation of the body or in the funeral ceremony.

From 22nd April 1999, the Spitalfields Archaeology Centre will be open to the public in the North-West Corner of Spitalfields Market.
Open Monday to Friday 12:00pm to 2:00pm
and Sunday 10:00am to 4:00pm.

The Sarcophagus, Coffin, Body and associated artefacts have been on display at the Museum of London for a short period, but will soon be removed for further analysis.

The Museum of London
150 London Wall,
London EC2Y 5HN.
Open Monday to Saturday 10:00am to 5:50pm
and Sunday 12:00 noon to 5:50pm
Last admission 5:30pm

More Info on the Museum of London's Own Website

Roman London

Britannia's London

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