I have been obsessed with the ancient Graeco-Roman world for over forty years. I studied Greek and Latin at U.C. Berkeley and later at Cambridge and London. I have been writing historical fiction set in the Classical world for nearly twenty years. But the more I learn about the ancients, the less I feel I understand them.
A free exhibition called Roman Dead currently on at the Museum of London Docklands presents a dozen ancient skeletons of Roman Londoners, as well as ashes of the cremated. There are tombstones, urns and grave-goods (personal objects buried with the dead). It may sound gruesome, but it’s utterly fascinating. The contents of graves from Roman London show us how much we still have to learn about the ancient Romans.
Here are five mysterious aspects of the exhibition that intrigue me.
1. Why such a big sarcophagus?
This is the star piece of the exhibition. Found a year ago (in June 2017) at a site on Harper Road in Southwark, this massive box (and lid) is made of limestone imported from Lincolnshire and weighs two and a half tons. Why put a body inside such a heavy stone box? To stop her spirit from haunting the living? To keep robbers from taking her jewellery? Or to stop grave robbers from doing something even worse? As dozens of surviving curse tablets show, many Romans believed in magic. In a recent blog post, Roman magic expert Adam Parker notes that witches used parts of dead bodies for their spells. So maybe this was a way of keeping the witches or sorcerers out of her grave, i.e. of protecting the dead from the living rather than vice versa. Is that what’s going on here? Is this massive sarcophagus designed to protect the body from misuse or robbery? If so, it didn’t work. The heavy lid had been pushed aside and part of her arm is missing. A tiny scrap of gold hints that she was in fact robbed of jewellery. Creepily, the partial skeleton of a baby was found with her skeleton. Was it originally buried with the woman? Or did it fall into the sarcophagus when it was robbed?
2. Why is her skull on her pelvis?
From a grave at Hooper Street near Tower Hamlets, we have the complete skeleton of a woman aged between 36-45. She was buried in a wooden coffin on a bed of chalk powder. Some time after she was buried, when she had started to decompose, someone dug her up again, removed the top of her skull and it placed above her pelvis. Then the coffin was reburied and rocks were piled on top. Among the rocks was a copper-alloy key. Was the key part of the reburial? Or accidentally dropped? Why was she buried on a bed of chalk? But most importantly, why was the top part of her skull placed over her pelvis?! Maybe the newly positioned skull, rocks and key (along with a ceremony we can’t guess at) were designed to stop the woman’s spirit from haunting those still above earth. Romans thought the womb was the seat of uncanny power.
|Listen to a commentary on this and other objects HERE|
Also found at the Hooper Street excavations was a young woman in a coffin with jet jewellery. Whitby Jet is not a precious stone but rather ancient fossilised wood from the Jurassic era. When you rub it against wool it produces a static charge that can move hair and other small particles without touching theme. Romans didn’t know about static and believed jet to be a magical substance that could keep away evil. Romans also believed that you could do harm to someone just by looking at them a certain way, hence amulets with staring faces like that of Medusa to ‘reflect back the evil eye’. So a jet medallion of Medusa’s face will be doubly protective. So far so good. But why was this jet medallion hidden under a small ceramic flagon? What is going on here? In addition, her other items of jet jewellery were not on her but near her. Is this magic?
|Listen to a commentary about the lion HERE|
In 1876, Victorian workmen found the remains of a semi-circular tower in the Roman Wall at Bishopsgate, near where the Gherkin stands today. These bastions were built in the 4th century using material from earlier Roman structures. Among the rubble used to build the tower was a stone lion devouring a stag. The stone is imported limestone from the South Cotswolds (London has no local stone) and was carved in the round, so perhaps stood atop a mausoleum. Why a lion? The museum label says the lion stands for the power of death, but I’m not buying it. Why pay a fortune for an expensive carved sculpture made of imported stone just to state the obvious? Could the lion be a warning to people or spirits who might want to do harm to the grave? If the lion is on MY grave, then it’s MY lion. That would be worth paying for. This lion devouring his prey reminds me of the ivory leopard handle of another Roman girl’s folding knife. This is MY knife and therefore MY leopard. Watch out!
|Pinecones for sale in Taormino, Sicily|
From Great Dover Street, Southwark comes a pinecone made of imported French limestone (shown in the picture above along with the lion). Similar pieces have been found on military sites from the North of England. Ever since I first noticed pinecones for sale in Sicily, I have wondered what they signified in the Graeco-Roman world. Actual pine cones and kernels were found on the site of London’s Mithraeum and also at Londinium’s amphitheatre, as well as at a cremation burial. It is thought that pinecones were burned as incense, perhaps to attract good deities and/or repel evil spirits. At the Roman Dead exhibition, the label suggests they were associated with the god Attis, who represented rebirth and resurrection. Was the pinecone the pagan equivalent of the Christian cross?
All these mysterious objects remind us that although the Romans were like us in many ways, in others they were very different.
Roman Dead is on until the end of October 2018 at the Museum of London Docklands and it is free. The exhibition is interactive and multi-sensory, with incense to smell, rattles to shake and replica Roman objects to touch. There is even a family trail for kids 8 and older. Ask at the front desk for a free origami Quiz Machine.