An exquisite Roman polychrome millefiori dish, newly discovered in East London, is going on display at Museum of London
Docklands from 29 April 2009. The dish is made up of hundreds of indented glass petals (the term millefiori means simply a thousand flowers) in an intricate repeated pattern and was found during excavations in Prescot Street, Aldgate, by L P : Archaeology. It was highly fragmented but miraculously held together by nothing more than the earth around it. It has been painstakingly reassembled by Museum of London Archaeology conservator Liz Goodman.
The dish is extremely rare and an unprecedented find, not only from London but from across the Western Roman empire. Originally the blue translucent petals, bordered with white, would have been embedded in a bright red opaque glass matrix. The hue was still present when the dish was uncovered, with the vermillion appearance diminishing as the water-saturated glass dried out. The red colouring can be seen around the rim. The complexity of its manufacture indicates that the dish was a highly-prized and valuable item. Beautifully crafted vessels like this were particularly in vogue in the 1st and early 2nd centuries. Dating is underway to establish the precise period of the find.
The dish formed part of the grave goods of a Roman Londoner whose cremated remains were uncovered, probably buried in a wooden container, in a cemetery in Londiniums Eastern quarter. A number of other ceramic and glass vessels were also ranged along the sides of the casket, suggesting a rich and unusual burial.
The excavations at Prescot Street have continued the process of the recording of the extensive eastern cemetery of Roman London which, by law, lay outside the city wall. This and previous excavations have found both cremations and inhumations (burial of the body) that spanned over 400 years of Roman occupation from the late 1st to early 5th century. This burial came from an area of intense burials at the eastern end of the site where there was also a stone mausoleum, a possible funerary structure and a series of burial groups which perhaps indicate the on-going use of cemetery plots. Indeed, this particular burial had, at a later date, had another cremation burial interred on the same spot which may point to a family connection.
Liz Goodman, Museum of London Archaeology conservator said Piecing together and conserving such a complete artefact offered a rare and thrilling challenge. We occasionally get tiny fragments of millefiori, but the opportunity to work on a whole artefact of this nature is extraordinary. The dish is extremely fragile but the glasswork is intact and illuminates beautifully nearly two millennia after being crafted.
Guy Hunt, Director, L P : Archaeology said The dig at Prescot Street produced an amazing range of Roman cemetery archaeology; it is fantastic for us that one of the many finds is such an exciting and beautiful object. It is great to be able to put an object such as this into context and to get a first hand impression of a rather wealthy east Londoner.