The Roman Dead

FREE exhibition at the Museum of London, Docklands until 28th October 2018.

A visit to the West India Quay building of the London Museum is always interesting, but last week we went to see its current exhibition entitled The Roman Dead.  This is built around the 2017 discovery of an, extremely rare, Roman sarcophagus in Southwark, near to Harper Road. Its occupant, or rather, her remains, are also part of the exhibition.

There is some context setting, about the size and extent of Roman London and examples of inscribed grave stele and grave goods found in the resting places of a variety of Roman citizens of Londinium, including children. Most people were either buried or cremated without stone markers and those which have been found aren’t necessarily found at the site of the corpse. It is only those high status individuals who were inhumed in lead-lined coffins or stone sarcophogi who we can identify. 

From these we know that London was the final home for military personnel, retired and serving, because we have the inscription to Sempronius Sempronianus and his brothers, the eldest brother being centurion of a Roman legion. Sempronius was 51 years old when he died. There were wealthy traders or merchants living (and dying) in Londinium, the Athenian Aulus Alfidius Olussa, who died aged 70 and others from Antioch and France, like Tiberinius Celerianus, a moritix, or seafarer.

When ever I see Roman artefacts I am astonished, above all, by their sophistication – like the beautiful milleflori glass bowl.  I also have to re-adjust my  mind to comprehend anew the scale and reach of that early pan-European, north African and middle eastern polity. Standard weights and measures, standard coinage (the first version of the Euro?), a shared system of law (with local variations) and genuine freedom of movement (excepting those who were slaves) but over two thousand years old. All this I know, but this exhibition prompted me to think it again.

One of the most interesting elements of this exhibition are the videos of archeologists talking about what modern scientific techniques, including DNA testing, enable us to find out about those who lived in Londinium. Macromorphoscopics and light stable isotope study of bones allow us to find the likely ethnicity and childhood origin of the remains. The diversity of the population of Londinium is what is startling. Men of white European ancestry alongside those of black African ancestry, but both grew up in Londinium. Others travelled here from France and Germany. The 36-45 year old woman who inspired the exhibition poster (see skull and other bones, left ) was of black African ancestry but her grave goods suggest she was a Londoner.  London was an ethnically diverse city, even BCE. 

This is only a small exhibition, it took us about an hour to go round it, but it provokes a lot of thought. I can heartily recommend a visit. There is a series of associated events, including performances, walks, talks and workshops, some FREE others charged for, go to the Events page to find out what’s on.

If you enjoyed reading this article you might also enjoy                        Stones                           ‘X’ Marks the Spot                      The Museum of London Docklands                      The Garden Museum                           The Jewish Museum

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.