18 Mar, 2019
Rare Roman Sarcophagus Unearthed on a Tower
This informal CPD article discussing the recent discovery of a rare Roman sarcophagus is delivered by Tower Demolition Ltd, highly experienced demolition professionals.
Much of the work we carry out is in London, a city that first came into being in about 50 AD under the Romans, who believed it would be a perfect location for a port. On occasions, it’s our privilege to dig through through layers of London’s rich history, discovering a wealth of fascinating stories and artefacts.
A recent project on Harper Road near Borough Market proved to be the most exciting yet, when a 1,600-year-old sarcophagus was found several metres underground. It was apparent that it had already been plundered in the 18th century—there was a ‘robber trench’ around the coffin, the lid was half open and only the bones remained inside, along with soil, but no precious items which would have been buried with the body.
Sarcophagus delivered to the Museum of London
Despite the tomb being previously accessed, it’s a remarkable and fascinating historical find, now at the Museum of London where experts will test and date the bones and soil samples. Through their research, they’ll learn more about Roman Southwark, which served as a burial area, with countless religious and funerary monuments used to commemorate their dead.
We worked in close collaboration with a specialist archaeological team from Southwark Council, who champion policies to ensure the borough’s ancient history is identified and preserved for future generations. By putting archaeology at the heart of our project plan from the outset, we can factor in the time needed for delicate excavations, so that any potential impact on the developers’ schedule is known well before work commences.
Achaeological conservation matters
We may be called Tower Demolition, but an important aspect of our job is archaeological conservation. We’re proud to ensure the long-term preservation of remains which help everyone to interpret and understand the past.
The archaeological team’s discoveries here were initially associated more with the living than the dead, though, as they uncovered the surface of a significant Roman road running north- south through the site. This route had evidently been in use for some time, as the substantial ditches bordering it had been recut on multiple occasions. Its discovery – lying to the east of where the road through Southwark is thought to have run – is one of the most exciting aspects of the project, said a project manager of the Archaeology team.
We are still speculating about what this find means, but it is possible that it is part of the elusive alignment of Stane Street – the Roman road to Chichester – or a subsidiary of it. We thought that this would be the culmination of the project – but then we found the sarcophagus.
This burial lay on the western side of the newly-discovered road, apparently associated with and cutting into a substantial Roman chalk wall – thought to be part of an earlier mausoleum. The stone coffin was quite plain, marked only by the chisels used in its construction, and measured almost 2.5m in length. Stylistically, it may be 3rd- or 4th- century in date, but later disturbance has taken out the surrounding soil layers that would normally be used to ascertain its age. The sarcophagus has now been taken to the Museum of London (via crane and truck; it weighs 2.5 tons) for careful examination by Archaeologists.
“I wonder if the sarcophagus was happened upon by post-medieval individuals who were robbing masonry from the nearby mausoleum”, said the Project Manager. “In a sarcophagus like this, you might expect to find a lead coffin containing the body. But if the robbers were after valuable materials they may have taken this too – we will have to wait and see what remains of its original occupant. This is a fascinating site”.
If its contents have survived, the sarcophagus has the potential to add much to our understanding of late Roman funerary practices; in London, only two examples have been discovered in their original place of burial in recent years: one from St Martin-in-the Fields, near Trafalgar Square, in 2006; and one from Spitalfields in 1999.
A Senior Planner, Archaeology Officer for Southwark Council, added: “It has been an incredible project, revealing lots of complex Roman archaeology, and the field team along with Tower Demolition has done a great job.”
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