Uncovering dead Romans

A few weeks ago I spotted a Tweet regarding the current exhibition at the Museum of London, Docklands. For several reasons I really wanted to go. Firstly, the last exhibition (Crossrail) had been superb, secondly, I really like the Museum of London, Docklands and thirdly, I really love the Romans and their truly all appropriating ways. (As opposed to the Brexit style Anglo-Saxons.)

I thought Dawn might be interested as well given her PhD is on burial practices, albeit Neolithic rather than Roman, so I sent her off the details and asked if she’d be interested. She was so we planned a date and that date was today.

We met at Waterloo then took the Jubilee line across to Canary Wharf because I had to drop something at the flat first. This meant we could have lunch at the wonderful Turkish deli, Hazev. I delighted both my tastebuds and Dawn’s eyes with my spicy garlic sausage omelette while she had a huge slab of a ricotta eggy filo pastry thing (with a couple of mezzes thrown in). It was a perfect lunch.

We then had a stroll across to West India Quay, with a detour through the UnderWonderland that is Canary Wharf.

Then across to the museum we wandered and into the exhibition.

‘Last year, a Roman sarcophagus was found near to Harper Road in Southwark. As only the third sarcophagus discovered in London since 1999, archaeologists at Pre-Construct Archaeology began working immediately to reveal its secrets, and what the unique find tells us about the ancient city that 8 million people now call home.’ MoL website

The sarcophagus was almost intact. The archaeologist who first discovered it thought he was scraping away a big rock but, gradually, as he unearthed more of it, he realised it was one big carved lid. It then started to take on the slow-coach concentrated removal that all of us ex- and current archaeologists know so well.

Anyway, eventually he (and a few diggery chums) lifted the lid off and then found a big stone coffin full of dirt. It would have proved far too destructive to remove the dirt on site so the entire thing was dug out, encased in a timber frame and lifted, very carefully, out of its hole and transported to a lab where careful removal could be completed.

The sarcophagus itself needed a bit of fixing up before so this was done until it was ready for display in this exhibition. I have to say I’m quite surprised it was all done within a year given the wheels of archaeology are notorious for grinding excruciatingly slow.

The sarcophagus

As well as the sarcophagus, there is also on display its last occupant, a woman. Tests are still underway on her so there’s not a lot known…yet. But this amazing find isn’t all there is to see. The MoL has brought together over 200 finds including 28 dead Roman Londoners, to show what (little) we know about Roman burial practice. It’s all very impressive.

Among the various artefacts are grave goods, jewellery, iron rings, many pots, some intact and not so intact glass and a few iron rattles which were used during the burial in order (they think) to ward off evil spirits. There’s even a modern version that you can rattle yourself. Given I tried it and no evil spirits suddenly appeared I can only assume (like all people who believe in higher powers) that it worked.

Probably my favourite artefacts, however, were two Venus figurines that had been found in a child burial.

Sadly, while there was a lot of stuff, there wasn’t a guide book so a lot of this post is guess and conjecture…on my part.

One thing I found very interesting (and I wish I’d known when I was writing my dissertation) was the fact that almost no two Roman burials appear to be the same. Given the wonderfully inclusive nature of the Romans, I figure that they just practised whatever practices they wanted and made up bits if they weren’t sure. While hell for anyone trying to work things out, it’s wonderfully refreshing for me.

Having filled our senses with as much skeletal remains as possible (always handy having an expert on hand to tell me what’s what and where it goes) we headed outside for a sit in the sun accompanied by an alcoholic beverage each. I enjoyed a lovely, refreshing Meantime IPA while Dawn enjoyed something that wasn’t what she actually wanted but enjoyed nevertheless. We then wandered down to the ferry for the start of our trips home.

Docks across the Quay

What a splendid day we had and, to cap it off, I managed to get home with time to plant some sweet peas, tie up some roses then watch Spain v Iran in a spirited World Cup game which was the best I’ve seen so far. In fact, I’m thinking of supporting Spain from now on. They won, 1-0.

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One Response to Uncovering dead Romans

  1. mum says:

    I know you told me all about it but it was good to read it as well and like Denise I would love to have gone. Still I don’t suppose will mind seeing it again. Love mum xxxx

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