The Last Roman Londoner At The Museum Of London

By Caroline Lewis | 25 May 2007
photo of a stone coffin containing a skeleton with no skull in front of an aerial photo of an archaeological excavation

The archaeological site at St Martin-in-the-Fields, with the Last Roman Londoner. Radiocarbon dating shows he was born around AD370. © Museum of London Archaeology Service (MoLAS)

The Museum of London is bringing Roman and Saxon London together in an exhibition featuring many of the finds from the recent dig at the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields.

Finds on show include Saxon pottery, jewellery from high status graves and ritual objects. The centrepiece of the display however, running until August 8 2007, are the remains of one of the last Roman Londoners, exhibited in a contemplative and respectful way.

The skeleton is that of a middle-aged man who died in about 410AD, discovered in a stone sarcophagus outside the walls of Roman Londinium.

This, and other finds from the excavation adjacent to Trafalgar Square, have caused archaeologists to redraw their map of the capital around 1,500 years ago. It had been thought there was a substantial gap between the collapse of Roman Londinium and the settling of Saxon Lundenwic, leaving a grey area of about 200 years from 400-600AD.

a tear shaped pendant with a gold surround

Saxon Gold pendant c650AD-70 © MoLAS

But this last Roman Londoner, out of time and out of place, is an eye-opener. His limestone coffin suggests a man of high standing and wealth, while a tile kiln nearby points to Roman building work in the area. The interesting thing is that the kiln is well outside the city walls, and both the man and the kiln date from about 410AD – a time when Londinium was falling into ruin.

The sarcophagus shows that Roman civilisation existed for at least a generation after Londinium was abandoned.

In addition, other finds suggest the Saxon settlement to the west of the Roman city was established much earlier than previously thought, and had more of a connection to Londinium than had been surmised.

“The late Roman man at the centre of our display symbolises the passing of the ancient world,” said Francis Grew, Senior Curator at the Museum. “Until now archaeologists have believed that there was no direct link between Roman Londinium and Saxon Lundenwic. The St Martins dig is making them change their minds.”

photo of a man holding a fragments of dark pottery pieced together

Saxon pottery, c500AD. © Museum of London

One of the finds that point to an earlier settlement of Lundenwic is a hand-thrown clay pot, styled and decorated in the manner introduced by Saxon immigrants from Europe. It dates to around 500AD and is the earliest such find in central London.

Grave goods from after 600AD, including fine jewellery, glass and metal vases, also throw up an interesting proposition – that the site was a sacred space long before the present church – perhaps even a significant Christian site.

One of the most interesting items on show is a rare copper hanging bowl with a delicate enamelled motif. The bowl would have been placed at the foot of the burial, holding an offering of hazelnuts as a symbol of rebirth. There is also a perfectly preserved gold pendant with a glittering glass stone, a pristine glass cup and amethyst beads.

photo of a skeleton in a stone sarcophagus

The Roman's skull was probably removed by a Victorian workman digging sewers. © MoLAS

It is certainly feasible that some of the individuals buried were Christians, given that they were buried in the Christian tradition, facing east. Whether there was an actual church or Christian place of worship there in the period thought to have separated Roman and Saxon London is not known.

Speaking about the Roman burial, the Rev Nicholas Holtam, Vicar of St Martin's said: “When we discovered this find, it was extraordinarily moving, raising the possibility that St Martin-in-the-Fields has been a sacred site for much longer than we previously thought.”

“The sarcophagus and body are from the time of St Martin himself, who died in 397 AD on the banks of the River Loire, and whose Christian life and charity have so deeply influenced this church. I am delighted that through this display, the Museum of London is able to share this find with so many people, revealing St Martin’s unknown past.”

The excavations were undertaken as part of a £36m renewal project at St Martin’s, to be completed in 2008. The church will reopen to the public from September 30 2007.

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