Thursday, 26 April 2012


As part of my 'Digging the Dirt' course I am looking at some of the great sites I have worked on in London. One of the most remarkable is the site at Spitalfields in east London. 

Spitalfields & site
The main focus was on the medieval priory and hospital of St Mary Spital and its thousands of burials. But below that level was a Roman cemetery, where one of the most important finds was made. This was a rare 4th century limestone sarcophagus in which was contained a lead coffin.

Lead coffin in sarcophagus

The scallop shells are an indication of the pagan belief of the journey to the Underworld. A layer of silt in the bottom of the coffin preserved organic materials, such as bay leaves, used to form a pillow and textile fragments of wool and silk with gold threads. 

The person interred within was a woman in her early twenties and isotope analysis on her teeth showed that she came from northern Spain. 

The skeleton in situ

She obviously came from a wealthy family, perhaps the wife or daughter of a London governor. Her face was reconstructed by the Meet the Ancestors team.

Reconstruction of the Roman 'Princess'

The artefacts from the burial were also very special. One was a unique glass phial with a zigzag pattern and of the highest quality.

Associated with this phial was a Whitby jet rod for extracting the contents. A second glass phial had a bulbous centre.

The Spitalfields woman is the most startling find from this grand cemetery just outside the old Roman Bishopsgate. John Stow, in the 16th century, reported in his 'A Survey of London', of many Roman finds unearthed during quarrying in the area. One shudders to think of how much has been lost over the years and centuries. 

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