In 2017 a spectacular stone coffin was found in a Roman era graveyard in London’s Southwark, effectively just over the modern bridge from the Mithraeum. The find, likely the resting place of a wealthy person given the limestone used, forms the core of the Roman Dead exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands which ends on October 28th, 2018
That find dates from the period between the latter quarter of the 3rd Century CE and the first quarter of the 4th. A video tells the story of its discovery, its excavation, and the biological insights which the remaining grave goods give us into the lives of this early Londoner. The grave may have been previously looted, but insights can be drawn from the skeletal remains, and from the tiny fragments of jewellery that were found within the coffin. This looks like it was a well-to-do female resident.
Londinium’s past citizens, their artefacts, and their approach to death are all explored. Having just completed the Open University’s MA in Classical Studies, which has a block focusing on death and associated rituals, I was particularly interested to see what would be familiar from that. All in all, there was a lovely mixture of insights from primary textual sources combined with a range of artefacts. Those finds (and indeed the museum posters shown above) hinted at the diversity of the city’s Roman era population. Inscriptions reveal a lot about that population’s make up. For example, the gravestone of Grata (named in the Roman fashion), shows she had a father Dagobitus, who was of Celtic-British origins. Lucius Pompeius Licetus, by contrast, came from modern day Arezzo, and was likely a member of the Roman army.
The sensory experience of death was suggested by some of the artefacts, including iron rattles that could have been used during funeral processions. I had met mastic before at a recent sensory conference, and didn’t really get the smell of it here or there, but other smells likely included frankincense and bay leaves. There was an opportunity to experience these.
Up until the middle of the 2nd Century, cremation was the most common form of dealing with the dead, and the accoutrements associated with that – from cremation urns in glass and other materials, bones, and goods to feed the dead during annual family visits – all featured. Most affecting was the section on child and baby burial. While some were certainly abandoned, other very young children were handled with a degree of care. Older chidlren were buried with miniature versions of goods, as well as toys which hinted that they weren’t that different to children alive today in many respects.
I couldn’t quite bring myself to take photos of the many near-complete human skeletons on display. They have provided so much valuable information on our Londinium ancestors, but it felt wrong to snap them blithely, so they don’t feature here. Despite that, this was a fascinating exhibiton which brought a relatively difficult topic to life in a sensitive way.