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Wednesday, April 14, 1999 Published at 13:41 GMT 14:41 UK


Coffin to open up Roman Britain

The decoration of the lead coffin is unusually ornate

A Roman coffin will be opened on Wednesday evening in London and could contain the remains of the most important Roman person ever found in Britain.

Curator Jenny Hall says the find is unique
Only a person of very high status could have been rich enough to afford both a stone sarcophagus and a sealed lead coffin ornately decorated with scallop shells.

Burying such a heavy object around the start of the fourth century AD would also have been a rare and expensive event. It was uncovered a few weeks ago, six metres (20 feet) down.

[ image: The Roman VIP could be a woman or a child]
The Roman VIP could be a woman or a child
The contents of the coffin will be revealed when archaeologists wearing protective suits and masks open it, hoping to learn more about the ruling class of Roman London.

"This coffin without doubt belongs to someone very important," says Dr Simon Thurley, Director of the Museum of London. "We know a huge amount about Roman London, but very little about the very, very important people who governed it."

The revelations from the coffin should give new insight into that aspect of Roman life.

Very valuable "grave goods" have already been found alongside the sarcophagus. These were placed to help the deceased on their journey into the afterlife.

"What we found is very interesting and is unique to this country," Jenny Hall, the museum's Roman Curator told BBC News Online. "Amongst other things, we found a little jet box and a long glass flask which probably would have held perfumed ointments."

The stone sarcophagus is 2.1m by 1.2m (seven by four feet), but the lead coffin is only 1.5m long (five feet). This, says Mrs Hall, suggests that the person buried was either a woman or a child.

Dr Simon Thurley explains the significance of the find
Assuming there is a skeleton found inside, the archaeologists hope that clothes, jewellery, and even shoes will be found, alongside plates and jugs containing food for the journey into the afterlife.

The bones themselves will, after analysis, reveal the diet and health of rich Roman Londoners.

There is unlikely to be a name inside the coffin but there is a small chance that some body tissue will have survived. The Romans sometimes packed coffins with gypsum or chalk and this may have preserved some of the body.

[ image: The former site of London's Spitalfields Market is being redeveloped]
The former site of London's Spitalfields Market is being redeveloped
This is the reason for the protective suits - a puff of vapour released from the coffin could contain 1,700-year-old bacteria.

If bones, textiles or body tissue is discovered, the team will have to act quickly to prevent it crumbling away when exposed once again to the air.

The sarcophagus is the most important Roman burial find uncovered since at least 1877, when another coffin was found.

But after over a century of scientific progress, there are high hopes that this coffin will reveal more than ever about Roman Britain.

Images courtesy of the Museum of London Archaeology Service

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