Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Rare Roman Grave Found in London Volume 52 Number 3, May/June 1999
by Larkin Mitchell

A late Roman stone sarcophagus with a lead coffin inside has been discovered in London, one of only a few such burials ever found in Britain. During several months of excavation on the site of a future office complex in Spitalfields, a rescue team from the Museum of London also uncovered the foundations of a medieval priory and a Roman cemetery containing the remains of low-born Roman Britons in wooden coffins and simple shrouds.

The sarcophagus is six feet long and weighs two tons. Outside it were a 12-inch-long green glass phial and jet objects, possibly a cosmetics set, including a lidded circular canister, two disks, and two pointed rods. Inside was the lead coffin, decorated with scallop-shell designs. Francis Grew, the museum's archaeology curator, explained that the change from cremation to inhumation around A.D. 250, the use of jet during the late Roman period, and the style of the phial date the burial to the third or fourth century A.D. According to Jenny Hall, the museum's Roman curator, the richness of the grave reflects the affluence of London during a period when the city served as a prominent trade center and seat of the provincial treasury.

The lead coffin is on display at the museum while conservators clean and treat the exterior in preparation for opening it. When the investigation is complete, the human remains will be buried in sanctified ground. Says Grew, "Until the opening, we can be sure of nothing save that no expense was spared on this burial."

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America