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Museum of London showcases rare Roman sarcophagus in first public display
The soil inside the coffin was carefully excavated and sieved. A tiny scrap of gold was found, which may be the remains of an earring, perhaps worn by the woman or buried alongside her. A tiny gemstone, made from jasper and carved with a satyr (mythological figure who is part human, part goat) was also found and would have originally been set into a ring. The gemstone was already old when buried in the sarcophagus and as such was perhaps a family heirloom.

LONDON.- In 2017 a rare Roman sarcophagus was excavated from Harper Road in Southwark; a site that archaeological research has shown was part of a large Roman cemetery. Today, the Museum of London Docklands reveals that this remarkable discovery will be on display for the first time in a major new exhibition, Roman Dead, which opens on 25th May 2018.

London’s complex Roman burial landscape is an important source of historical knowledge, providing insight into Romans’ religious beliefs and their treatment of the dead. This new exhibition will investigate the cemeteries of ancient London, examining the discoveries that were made there and their context within today’s modern cityscape.

Exotic grave goods from across the Roman Empire are just some of over 200 objects on display. Highlighted are an expensive multi-coloured glass dish found with cremated remains and a jet pendant in the form of Medusa’s head, thought to protect the dead, perhaps on their journey to the Underworld. The exhibition will explore themes of cremation, inhumation and ritual as well as some unusual and sometimes disturbing burial practices. Deviant burials will include a number of men’s skulls which show signs of a violent death and were buried in pits by London Wall in the City of London.

Opening at the Museum of London Docklands, a site synonymous with London’s history, the exhibition examines important questions about death in Roman London whilst exploring the latest research into beliefs around afterlife and funerary practice.

Meriel Jeater, Curator at the Museum of London said: “We are incredibly excited to display the Harper Road sarcophagus publically for the very first time as part of our Roman Dead exhibition. Discoveries of this kind are rare and reveal new stories and alter perspectives of our great city. 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.”

Jackie Keily, Senior Curator, Prehistory and Roman, at the Museum of London, said: “Roman Dead draws upon the Museum of London’s world renowned collection of human remains and grave goods, in particular showcasing 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. 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.”

Key objects from the exhibition include:

● Stone sarcophagus from Harper Road, Southwark. This is the most recent Roman sarcophagus to be found in London (discovered in summer 2017). The lid of the coffin was found partly pushed to one side, indicating it might have been disturbed by grave robbers.

● Multi-coloured glass dish found in Prescot Street near Aldgate in 2009 during excavations in Roman London’s eastern cemetery. It formed 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. 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.

● Jet Medusa pendant found in the burial of a woman from Hooper Street, Tower Hamlets. The woman’s skeleton has been scientifically analysed revealing she grew up in the London area. Jet was frequently used as a material for burial goods, particularly jewellery and dress accessories. It was thought to have magical properties and to protect the dead, perhaps on their journey to the Underworld.

● Tombstone of a 10 year old girl, Marciana. It was found during excavations of the City wall in 1979, which revealed that the wall was partly composed of reused monumental masonry including fragments of tombstones.

● Four skulls of men showing signs of violent death found in waterlogged pits near London Wall. The pits contained human remains, mostly skulls, of 40 people. Most of the individuals were men, aged between 18 and 35 years old. Many of their skulls showed signs of multiple blunt- and sharp-force trauma which had caused their deaths.

● A pot decorated with a human face, used as a cremation urn and found during excavations of part of the western Roman cemetery at Fetter Lane. Face pots are usually found in cemeteries or religious sites and were probably not for domestic use. A wide variety of pots were used for holding cremations. Some were everyday cooking pots but others, like this face pot, were probably specially purchased for burials.

As well as showcasing exciting artefacts from Roman London the exhibition will examine the science behind the study of ancient human remains and highlight the rites and rituals surrounding death in Roman London. Families and children will be able to engage with the displays through a range of interactive activities and events.

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May 25, 2018

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