Sparked by the recent and hugely significant discovery of a rare Roman sarcophagus in Southwark last summer, the Museum of London Docklands has collated over 40 years of research and archaeological work to create Roman Dead, the first exhibition of its kind to explore the beliefs, rituals, deaths and burials in ancient London.
The ‘Southwark sarcophagus’ has raised international excitement as a rare historical find and will be on public display for the first time ever at the Museum of London Docklands, alongside the skeletal remains of the woman that was buried inside. The stone sarcophagus is only the third of its kind found in London in recent years and this incredible discovery has helped to provide a new opportunity to explore the subject of death in London’s ancient past.
The Museum of London Docklands can now reveal that the skeletal remains of a woman in her 30s were discovered within the sarcophagus, and curators have found evidence to suggest that the vessel was robbed of its treasures in antiquity. Approximately a third of the remains are unaccounted for, and a crack in the heavy lid of the sarcophagus points towards a grave robbery in the 16th century. Two rare items survived the robbery; an intaglio depicting a satirical scene and a gold fragment, highlighting the wealth which may have lain within the coffin.
The sarcophagus acts as a centrepiece to over 250 other objects, including many never before displayed. Seeking to provide visitors with an insight into burial ceremonies in Roman times, the exhibition helps to shed light on how Roman Londoners prepared their friends and family for their journey to the afterlife. Jewellery and amphorae will be on display alongside the skeletons and cremated remains of 28 ancient Londoners, selected from the museum’s archives from Roman burial sites across London. Roman Dead reveals the objects people buried with the dead and why, providing a picture of funerary ritual and exploring the latest research into beliefs around afterlife and burial practice.
Roman Dead reflects on who Roman Londoners were and raises questions of the city’s diverse past, exhibiting human remains with Black African ancestry alongside objects sourced from across the Roman Empire, showcasing London’s international connections, even in this early period of its history.