6 Jaw-Dropping Finds from ‘Roman Dead’ at the Museum of London Docklands
Have you visited the Museum of London Docklands in Canary Wharf? If not, what are you waiting for?! As well as a brilliant permanent collection, their latest temporary exhibition; Roman Dead – about life (and death) in Roman London is simply superb.
The majority of Roman graves were buried underground, but those that could afford it would build monuments and mausoleums to ensure that their relatives would be remembered. In fact our word monument comes from the Latin ‘monere’ which means ‘to remember’.
Location mattered too, and the Romans buried their citizens outside the City walls. Today that means we find burial sites in what were previously outskirts; Spitalfields, Fleet Street and Southwark.
It was a recent discovery in Harper Road, Southwark that prompted the latest exhibition, revealing new evidence about the ways that Roman treated their dead. The Museum of London’s finds, combined with decades of research into London’s Roman burials, invites us to examine what we share between the Londoners that lived here 2,000 years ago.
The free exhibition lasts is on until 28 October and here are my favourite 6 objects which you definitely shouldn’t miss…
1. Tombstone for Grata
Even with an object that’s almost 2,000 year old. It’s hard not to feel a human connection, especially with something as relatable as a tombstone. This particular stone was found on London Wall, near Finsbury Circus and bears a Latin description;
“To the spirits of the dead. Erected by Solinus to the memory of his beloved wife, Grata, the daughter of Dagobitus, aged 40 years”
Not only does it echo familiar gravestone messages today, but the names are also interesting. The father’s name mentioned Dagobitus is British, while Grata is Latin for ‘welcome’, showing the influence of Roman culture in Britain.
2. Iron Rattles
Just as we often include music memorial services today, it seems Roman were the same. We can of course only imagine what a ceremony would have sounded like, but we know that horns, pipes and instruments like these rattles would’ve been used to accompany the funeral rites.
Can you see the face? It’s not a mistake, this pot dating from 70-200 AD was found in Fetter Lane and has markings resembling a male face on the front. These pots sometimes contains burnt remains of humans or animal offerings, a traditional part of Roman funerals.
4. Coloured Glass Dish
It’s hard to believe that this modern-looking glass dish dates from 200-300 AD.
Now faded, this was constructed from fusing together rods of bright blue, white and red glass, it would then be sliced into thin sections and moulded into shape. Incredibly rare, it came from the eastern Mediterranean and would have been very expensive, easily costing a year’s salary of a Roman soldier.
5. Gold Finger Ring
Found in Bow and dating from 200-300 AD, this tiny ring was my favourite object in the whole exhibition.
It’s one of the finest pieces of jewellery to ever be covered, unearthed in 1995. It was found on the middle finger of the left had of a 17-22 year old woman.
Inside the gold band is set an agate stone with a minuscule carving of two mice eating together. It’s probably a betrothal ring and since it has very little wear, was probably new when the woman was buried.
The design of two mice isn’t that strange because there was a well known story by the Roman writer Horace who wrote a book of satirical poems around 35 BC. It’s a scene from the story of a town mouse and country mouse, retold by many generations including Aesop’s Fables and more recently by Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope in the 18th Century.
6. Skeleton of a Woman
It’s incredible what science can now tell us about ancient skeletons, especially the details of your life that can be extracted just from your teeth!
We can therefore tell that this woman, found in Lant Street, Southwark and who dates from c.300 AD, was of Black African ancestry.
She spent her childhood in the southern Mediterranean and gives us an idea about the diversity of Roman London. From the same burial ground in Southwark for example, 18 individuals were analysed in detail and 4 of these had Black African ancestry.
Roman Dead is on until 28 October and free to visit. The Museum of London Docklands is at West India Quay and open daily 10am-6pm. Find out more from their website here.
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