The Museum of London is lining up an exhibition of Roman treasures discovered in the capital’s many graveyards and burial grounds
When archaeologists excavated a rare Roman sarcophagus from Harper Road in London’s Southwark in 2017 with its coffin lid found partly pushed to one side, indicating it might have been disturbed by grave robbers, it was a prescient reminder of the capital’s complex Roman burial landscape.
This archaeological realm of ancient cemeteries remains an important source of historical knowledge and insight into the Romans’ religious beliefs and their treatment of the dead and now the Museum of London Docklands will be delving into this vast necropolis to reveal the discoveries and examine their context within today’s modern cityscape.
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Roman Dead, which opens on May 25 2018, will display the stone sarcophagus from the Harper Road site, which archaeological research has shown was part of a large Roman cemetery, together with over 200 objects including exotic grave goods originating from across the Roman Empire.
Exploring themes of cremation, inhumation, ritual and some unusual and sometimes disturbing burial practices including what the museum describes as the “deviant burials” including a number of men’s skulls showing signs of a violent death, the exhibition will reveal the latest research into beliefs around afterlife and funerary practice.
Highlighted objects include an expensive multi-coloured glass dish found with cremated remains in Prescot Street near Aldgate in 2009 during excavations in Roman London’s eastern cemetery. Part of the grave goods of a Londoner whose cremated remains had been buried in a wooden container, the dish is an extremely rare find both from Roman London and the western Roman Empire.
Even in its day it would have been very expensive – there are references in literature of multi-coloured bowls being worth 1000s of sesterces, at a time when a soldier may have earned just over 1000 sesterces a year.
Scientific analysis of woman’s skeleton from Tower Hamlets that yielded a jet Medusa pendant revealed she grew up in the London area. Jet was frequently used as a material for burial goods, particularly jewellery and dress accessories as it was thought to have magical properties and to protect the dead, perhaps on their journey to the Underworld.
“Discoveries of this kind are rare and reveal new stories and alter perspectives of our great city,” says Curator Meriel Jeater. “We will also be displaying skeletons from the eastern parts of Roman London, and the fascinating grave goods buried with them.
“Visitors will be encouraged to question the evidence and join in the discussion, as we look to advance the knowledge of the city that we share with these ancient Londoners.”
The four male skulls going on display show signs of trauma and were found in waterlogged pits near London Wall that contained human remains, mostly skulls, of 40 people. Most of the individuals were men, aged between 18 and 35 years old and many of their skulls showed signs of multiple blunt and sharp-force wounds which had caused their deaths.
Another displayed find is the tombstone of a 10-year old girl, Marciana, which was found during excavations of the City wall in 1979, and revealed that the wall was partly composed of reused monumental masonry including fragments of tombstones.
A pot decorated with a human face found during excavations of part of the western Roman cemetery at Fetter Lane was used as a cremation urn and reveals how Roman face pots are usually found in cemeteries or religious sites. A wide variety of them were used for holding cremations, some were everyday cooking pots but others, like this face pot, are thought to have been specially purchased for burials.
Jackie Keily, Senior Curator, Prehistory and Roman, at the Museum of London, whose previous exhibitions include the Docklands Museum’s exhibition of archaeological finds from the Crossrail project, promised this latest exhibition would showcase objects that haven’t previously been displayed.
“Archaeology in London is a resource that keeps on producing new and exciting discoveries, such as the Harper Road sarcophagus and the wonderful glass bowl from Prescot Street,” she said. “We hope our visitors will gain an insight into Roman Londoners’ relationship with death through these wonderful artefacts and through the expert analysis that has been undertaken on the skeletal remains recovered from ancient London.”
Roman Dead at the Museum of London Docklands runs from May 25 – October 28 2018. Admission free.
Museum of London Docklands
London, Greater London
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