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The Spitalfields Roman Woman

Started by gash, July 27, 2019, 11:43:30 pm

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In his Survey of London 1589, John Stow wrote about the discovery of pots of Roman gold coins buried in Spitalfields and it had long been understood that ancient tombs once lined the road approaching London, just as they did along the Appian Way in Rome. Yet it was only in the nineteen-nineties, when large scale excavations took place prior to the redevelopment of the Spitalfields Market, that the full extent of the Roman cemetery was uncovered.

In March 1999, a Roman stone sarcophagus containing a rare lead coffin decorated with scallop shells came to light, indicating the burial of someone of great wealth and high status. Grave goods of fine glass and jet were buried between the coffin and the sarcophagus. It was the first unopened sarcophagus to be found in London for over a century and when the entire assemblage was removed to the Museum of London, the coffin was opened to reveal the body of a young woman in her early twenties, buried in ceremonial fashion. In the week after the opening of the coffin, ten thousand Londoners came to pay their respects to the Spitalfields Roman woman. She was the most astonishing discovery of the excavations yet, as the years have passed and more has been learnt about her, the enigma of her identity has become the subject of increasing fascination.

Analysis of residue in the coffin revealed that her head lay upon a pillow of bay leaves, her body was embalmed with oils from the Arab world and the Mediterranean, and wrapped in silk which had been interwoven with fine gold thread. Traces of Tyrian purple were also found, perhaps from a blanket laid over the coffin. Such an elaborate presentation suggests she may have been displayed to her family and friends seventeen hundred years ago as part of funeral rites.

The sarcophagus and grave goods are on public exhibition at the Museum but, thanks to Rebecca Redfern, Curator of Human Osteology, Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie and I had the privilege to visit the Rotunda where the human remains are stored and view the skeleton of the Spitalfields Roman woman. Deep in a windowless concrete bunker filled with metal shelving stacked with cardboard boxes, containing the remains of thousands of Londoners from the past, lay the bones of the woman. We stood in silent reverence with just the sound of distant traffic echoing.

Rebecca is the informal guardian of the Spitalfields woman and remembers switching  on the television to watch news of the discovery as a student. Today, she has a four-year-old daughter of her own. "The work went on for so many years that a lot of couples met working in Spitalfields," Rebecca admitted to me, "and there is now a whole generation of 'Spital babies' born to those archaeologists."

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