The Roman Dead

It all began in Southwark.

The remarkable discovery of a stone sarcophagus in Lant Street, Southwark last year spurred the Museum of London to collate forty years of work into one exhibition. How did Roman London commemorate death and what can we learn from what they’ve left behind?

Exhibition curators Jackie Kiely, Rebecca Redfern and Meriel Jeater have put together a collection that looks at the Roman way of death and Britain’s place on the edge of the Roman Empire.

Jet Pendant and broken necklace © Museum of London
A Jet Medusa Pendant found in the burial of a woman from Hooper Street, Tower Hamlets. Jet was frequently used as a material for burial goods; It was thought to have magical properties and protected the dead as they journeyed to the afterlife. © Museum of London, 2018.

The sarcophagus was the starting point in demystifying the extraordinary life of its occupant. The lid was slightly ajar and was probably grave-robbed somewhere in antiquity. The contents of the sarcophagus, which originated in Lincolnshire (so she seemed to be a pretty important person to have such a thing!) revealed the lady inside was in her thirties when she died, with excavators sifting through nearly a tonne and a half of soil to see if the thieves had left anything behind.

Stone sarcophagus from Harper Road, Southwark © Southwark Council
Stone sarcophagus from Harper Road, Southwark © Southwark Council

Researchers found a slither of gold that may have once been part of an earring and a gemstone made from jasper and carved with a satyr – a mythological figure who is part human, part goat. It was probably once part of a ring that she wore.

Female skeletal remains discovered within Roman sarcophagus © Museum of London
The lady was also found with the remains of an infant – was this her child? Was it added later? Excavation only offers part of the story. © Museum of London 2018

People are at the heart of this collection and the sarcophagus, the third of its kind find in London since 1999 is accompanied by eleven skeletons and the ashes of twenty eight others have been chosen to represent the cultural melting pot that  Londinium was at the time. Migration is highlighted – in the ancient world, people got around. Not everyone her was a Briton. All remains were taken from four ancient cemeteries that once surrounded the city.

“Excavation is only part of the story.”

Much like the grand old Victorian cemeteries that once skirted (and are now part) of the metropolis, a northern, western, eastern and southern cemetery lay on vital routes to and from the capital. Did you know the southern cemetery, close to where Borough tube station is now, was partially on marshland and islands?

Curator Meriel Jeater observes a collection of Roman glass containers © Museum of London.jpg
Curator Meriel Jeater observes a collection of Roman glass containers © Museum of London 2018

To an extent the exhibition cleans house of the Museum of London’s extensive archive; a number of the cremation urns found in Victorian times were valued more for the vessels rather than the human remains that were inside. With advances in modern technology, we can now see where people were born, grew up, what they ate and their genetic health. Oh, those Victorians. They didn’t know what they were missing!

Skull Lady.png
One of the skeletons, also from the site of the sarcophagus, is of a lady which analysis revealed had black African ancestry; yet she was buried with local objects. How did she end up here? Was she enslaved? Was her identity lost in childhood? © Sheldon K. Goodman 2018

Then there’s the strapping bloke buried with a germanic belt – the grave goods indicated that he hailed from the continent, but bioarchaeology revealed that he grew up in London and was probably a Roman Legionary. His bones bear the scars of a violent life.

Conservator Luisa Duarte cleans a glass cremation urn © Museum of London.jpg
Curator Meriel Jeater observes a collection of Roman glass containers. Some urns had human-like face son them; others, recycled from other uses – an Amphora originally used for storing Olive Oil was reued as a grave marker and contained the remains of eighteen cremations © Museum of London 2018

Cremation was very much in favour during this time and archaelogical evidence suggests that more men than women ended up being cremated. Pyres would have burnt brightly in cemeteries and required a colossal amount of resources to build, so would have been for the well off. Pulses, beans and lentils have been found in the fired bone showing that offerings of food were given to the deceased.

Dog
The remains of a terrier or chihuahua type dog. Dogs were associated with hunting and protection; it was close to the body of a baby. Its head and paws are missing – was this because of some sort of ritual? Its collar, made of ornate beads, is just to the right © Sheldon K G oodman

Despite these cemeteries and their bodies, no examples of grave AND headstone have been found together, a symptom of a city which has churned up its ground repeatedly to accommodate the needs of the living as a priority to those of the dead. Take the headstone of a ten year old girl called Marciana. Although only fragments remain, the small relief of her above her inscription and its sheer size show the love and devotion that was taken in commemorating her memory.

Tombstone of a 10-year-old girl, Marciana © Museum of London.jpg
Such diligence disappeared as the stones were found to have been reused in the rubble of a nearby tower a few centuries later. © Museum of London 2018
A gold ring with jemstone, depicting two mice eating together. © Museum of London.jpg
A gold ring with carved nicolo gemstone, depicting two mice eating together. It was found on the third finger on the left hand of a woman, indicating that she may have been engaged or recently married. © Museum of London 2018

Seeing the bones of these long-gone Londoners (in an orientation that, according to Meriel Jeater was influenced by a cemetery map which the designer of the exhibition couldn’t resist from including in the layout) serve as a reinder of what will be left when we’re dead and buried.

Stories from these bones and the ephemera they were buried with give a tantalising echo of the rites and rituals that would have seen these people off on their journey to the afterlife. This exhibition starts these lives from scratch and lights the way in discovering a way of living hidden for too long beneath London’s soil.

Roman Dead will be at the Museum of London Docklands, opening today and running until 28 October. Admission is free.

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3 thoughts on “The Roman Dead

  1. Wow what an interesting post! I would love to see this exhibition. Has this blog done posts on the history of funerary rites in places like Britain? I was wondering, on reading this post, how headstones came to be used in this way.

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