An extremely rare Roman sarcophagus has been found at an ancient burial site in Borough, writes Alex Lambe…
The stone coffin, has been described as ‘the find of a lifetime’ as only two other similar sarcophagi have been discovered in their original burial place.
The excavation at Harper Road began in January this year, and revealed a large trench around the coffin and found the lid had been moved – suggesting the grave had been discovered and robbed in the past. It is possible that only valuable items were taken and the body left, a council spokesperson has said.
The Harper Road excavation is one of many archaeological projects running across Southwark. Recent archaeological research has shown that Roman Southwark was the focus of ritual activity.
Experts now know that the area formed a ‘complex ritual landscape’ containing various religious monuments and a vast Roman cemetery on sites such as Dickens Square, Lant Street and Trinity Street, where a range of burial practices were used, with graves often revealing exotic goods from across the Roman Empire.
The coffin is being moved to the Museum of London, where its contents will be exhumed.
Other Roman finds in Southwark include the burial of a fourteen-year-old girl in nearby Lant Street – one of the greatest finds in Britain, the council has said. Her 4th century burial site included a bone inlay box, and ivory clasp knife depicting a leopard and glassware.
Only two other sarcophagi have been found in their original burial place in recent years, one from St Martin-in-the Fields near Trafalgar Square in 2006 and one from Spitalfields in 1999.
Gillian King, Senior Planner: Archaeology, at Southwark Council, said: “In my long archaeological career I have excavated many hundreds of burials, but this is the first Roman sarcophagus I have ever discovered, still surviving in its original place of deposition. I have seen them in museums, but I think part of me believed that they had probably all been found by now!
“It really is a very special discovery. Personally, I find it really fascinating to contemplate that this area – which we are now so familiar with – was once, during the Roman period, so completely different. It really does make me feel very honoured that my role at Southwark Council contributes to protecting amazing archaeological treasures like this, and our work means that we can ensure that the historic environment is championed and preserved for the enjoyment of us and future generations.”
Cllr Peter John, the Leader of Southwark Council, said: “This is a remarkable and exciting find. In Southwark we take our duty as custodians of the borough’s rich, varied and important archaeological heritage very seriously.
“This Roman sarcophagus is the find of a lifetime and a credit to the council’s commitment to ensuring that the borough’s history is properly conserved.”