Archive for July 18th, 2017

Rare Roman sarcophagus found in London

Tuesday, July 18th, 2017

Archaeologists have discovered a rare Roman stone sarcophagus at an excavation on Swan Street and Harper Road in Southwark, central London. The coffin dates to the 4th century and was buried inside a mausoleum along the Roman road just outside ancient Londinium. It is filled with soil so archaeologists were not able to determine its contents at a glance, but because the bones of a baby from the same period were found buried next to the sarcophagus, it’s possible it contains the skeletal remains of a mother. There is no evidence at this point of any connection between the infant and the coffin burial.

Contractors Pre-Construct Archaeology were engaged to excavate the property where a court annex and sorting office once stood and on which the charitable organization Trinity House plans to build a new housing complex. Excavations began in January and were almost completed when the sarcophagus was discovered last month. Under the former court annex building, the team discovered a long trench that had been dug by looters hundreds of years ago around the perimeter of the sarcophagus. The lid had been slid open and there’s a large crack in it, likely the calling cards of the same looters who dug the trench.

The grave robbers found the sarcophagus in the post-Medieval period. They broke into it and helped themselves to grave goods. Archaeologists hope the looters limited themselves to stealing the more showily valuable objects — precious metals, fine pottery, jewelry — and left behind things they didn’t care about but archaeologists do. If they didn’t interfere with the human remains, that would be a great archaeological boon. The sarcophagus has been scanned with a metal detector which signalled the presence of metal inside the earth-packed coffin, so there’s almost certainly something in there.

The deceased must have been a very wealthy, high-status individual to receive such an expensive burial. The sarcophagus itself is extremely rare. Only two late Roman sarcophaguses have been found in their original burial context in London in recent memory. Then there’s the location on the main Roman road leading in and out of the city. This was a prestigious spot that would have been reserved for someone of great importance.

Recent archaeological research has shown that this area of Roman Southwark is the focus of ritual activity. We now know that this area forms a complex ritual landscape containing various religious and funerary monuments and a vast dispersed Roman cemetery (sites such as Dickens Square, Lant Street and Trinity Street) incorporating a range of burial practices, often with exotic grave goods sourced from across the Roman Empire. […]

Gillian King, Senior Planner: Archaeology, at Southwark Council, said: “In my long archaeological career I have excavated many hundreds of burials, but this is the first Roman sarcophagus I have ever discovered, still surviving in its original place of deposition. I have seen them in museums, but I think part of me believed that they had probably all been found by now!

“It really is a very special discovery. Personally, I find it really fascinating to contemplate that this area – which we are now so familiar with – was once, during the Roman period, so completely different.”

The sarcophagus and lid were raised on Tuesday and transported to the Hackney archive of the Museum of London where it will be painstakingly excavated in laboratory conditions. Any bones or artifacts found within will be analyzed and tested to confirm the date of the burial.

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