Roman lady is London’s highest-status burial

Spitalfields market in London’s East End was excavated between 1991 and 2007, an ambitious undertaking that opened the largest area of London ever to be archaeologically explored at one time. Finds ranged in date from Roman London to the late 19th century, and it has taken another 13 years to fully document, conserve, research and publish the more than 6,000 artifacts, 174 Roman burials and 10,500 medieval burials unearthed at the site during the 16 years of excavations.

In the Roman era, what would become the Spitalfields area was a burial ground outside the city walls now known as the northern cemetery. A total of 493 burials have been documented at the cemetery. One burial, unearthed in 1999, was an immediate standout: a stone sarcophagus containing a lead sarcophagus which in turn contained the remains of a young woman from the late 4th century. It was the first unopened sarcophagus to be discovered in London for more than a century. That it held a second coffin, an extremely rare lead one at that, made it even more significant.

The stone sarcophagus, seven feet long, four feet wide and weighing two tons on its own, was transported with all its contents to the Museum of London. It was opened to reveal the lead coffin elaborately decorated in a pattern of scallop shells set in triangles and diamonds created by crossed beaded straps soldered to the lid. Grave goods of fine blown glass unguentaria (perfume vessels) of continental manufacture were buried with her between the lead coffin and the stone sarcophagus. One is a double conical shape (what looks like two long tubes that widen to conical shapes sealed together at the wide ends); the other is an extremely fine light green glass cylinder with a unique zig-zag decoration of glass strands. No others of its kind have been found before anywhere else in the Roman Empire. Other grave goods include a long jet rod which was the dipstick for the cylindrical glass unguentarium, a jet box and jet rings, all likely part of a cosmetic kit.

The deceased was 5’3″ tall and of petite build. Isotope analysis of her teeth traced her early childhood to the city of Rome. As a child of around four or five years old, she was struck with a serious illness that interrupted the growth of her tooth enamel. She was in her early twenties when she died. The likeliest culprit is childbirth, but there is no direct evidence of what killed her.

Organic remains in the lead coffin indicate her head was placed upon a pillow of fresh bay leaves imported from the Mediterranean. She was embalmed with fine oils and pine and pistachio resin were used as air fresheners in the coffin. Analysis of clothing fragments in the lead coffin found she was laid to rest in the most luxurious garment made of Chinese damask silk and 97% pure gold thread. Wool bands that are now dark brown were probably originally purple and experts believe it was the famous Tyrian purple made from the Murex sea snail.

The ultra-high status nature of her funerary clothing, the probable purple dye, her stone sarcophagus, her grave goods and the fact that she was brought up in Rome, all suggest that her family was probably of senatorial or equestrian rank.

Her grave is by far the most high status ever found in Roman Londinium. In late Roman London, there would have been only a very limited number of individuals of that sort of background.

It is therefore conceivable that she was either the wife of a governor of Flavia Caesariensis (the British province covering what is now the English Midlands, East Anglia, and southern England, north of the Thames) or, possibly, that she was the wife of one of the overall bosses of late Roman Britain (a so-called vicarius Britanniarum – Britain’s imperial “viceroy”).

The style of her grave goods and other evidence reveals that she almost certainly died in the four or five decades after around AD360.