First Roman funerary bed found in London

Archaeologists have unearthed a vanishingly rare Roman wooden funerary bed in an excavation near the Holborn Viaduct in London. This is the first complete Roman funerary bed found in Britain, preserved in the muddy, waterlogged soil of the former Fleet River in excellent condition for almost 2,000 years. Five wooden coffins from the Roman period were also found at the site. Before this exceptional bonanza, only three Roman wood coffins had ever been discovered in London. Artifacts found with the burials date them to the earliest period of the Roman conquest, ca. 40-80 A.D.

Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) has been excavating the site ahead of new office construction. The Holborn Viaduct area is in central London today, but it was 500 feet west of the walls of ancient Londinium next to the major Roman artery road known as Watling Street. The Roman practice was to bury their dead along roads outside the city walls to keep disease from spreading in the close quarters of urban centers. Archaeologists therefore expected they might find Roman-era burials here, but the profusion of well-preserved wooden coffins and the unique funerary bed and were a most happy surprise.

Carved of high-quality oak, the bed frame has two long side panels, two shorter head and feet panels with sturdy feet at the four corners and cross-slats connected to the sides with pegged joinery. The long sides are just under six feet long. It was found dismantled, taken apart carefully without damaging it at the time of the burial.

It was taken apart before being placed within the grave but may have been used to carry the individual to the burial. We think it was probably intended as a grave good for use in the afterlife. Tombstones from across the Roman empire show carvings of the deceased reclining on a couch or bed and eating as if they were alive.

Skeletal remains found with the bed belonged to an adult male in his late 20s or early 30s. Skeletal remains have also been found with the wooden coffins. There were no other grave goods associated with the bed burial, but several objects have been unearthed from a cremation burial: beads, a glass vial containing a dark substance and an oil lamp decorated with the figure of a defeated gladiator.

The Roman period is not the only one represented at the site. MOLA team has uncovered objects in later layers, including chalk floors and timber wells from a 13th century tannery and an impressive wooden water pipe from the 15th or 16th century that seems to have originally pumped water on a ship. Not long after the wooden pipe was made, another cemetery was built on the site, possibly connected to the church of St Sepulchre which was nearby. Remains of homes, shops and a pub attest to the explosion of new construction after the Great Fire of London in 1666. In the Victorian era, those older structures were demolished and the warehouses built.

Excavation of the site is ongoing and expected to continue through the early part of this year. Meanwhile, the objects recovered will be cleaned, stabilized and conserved. Developers plan to put a selection of the finds on display in the new office building when it opens its doors in 2026.