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.
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.
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.
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?
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.