St Martins-in-the-Fields excavation site with view to Trafalgar Square. © Museum of London
The map of Roman London looks set to be redrawn due to the excavation of an early 5th century burial during restoration work at St Martin-in-the-Fields church in central London.
The body is one of a range of artefacts that were shown for the first time at a press conference at the Museum of London Archaeology Service (MoLAS) headquarters on Thursday, November 30.
These were all unearthed as part of an ongoing £36million restoration programme by architects Eric Parry of the famous church at the north corner of Trafalgar Square. In tandem with this, a team of archaeologists from MoLAS are in charge of excavating the hidden remains stretching back more than 1,500 years.
The Rev Liz Griffith and Gordon Malcolm (MoLAS) view the sarcophagus. Photo: Graham Carlow
The star find so far has been the headless Roman, whose burial in a solid limestone sarcophagus in around 410 AD was close to the date when the church’s patron St Martin died, 397 AD. A rare 5th century Roman tile kiln also found at the site (the only one ever found in central London) suggests that far from being a backwater, this site may have had a significant use.
“It’s a part of Roman London we’ve never seen before,” said Taryn Nixon, Director of MoLAS, “so we are having to rethink what London was like then.”
The Roman man was estimated to have been in his 40s, about five feet six inches tall (quite lofty for those days) and more than likely someone of high status. A Victorian sewer builder rather than a sword probably accounts for his lack of a head as one part of his sarcophagus had been broken off and the head stolen.
Copper escutcheon from Saxon hanging bowl, early 7th century. Courtesy Museum of London
The fact the body was aligned east-west suggests he may have been buried in the Christian fashion which was becoming the norm in England around that time.
The Reverend Nicholas Holtham, vicar of the church, believes the site may even then have been of religious significance. “This find is extraordinarily moving,” he commented. “It raises the possibility that this 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,” he continued. “How wonderful that in doing work to secure the future of St Martin’s we have unearthed its unknown past.”
Early 7th century gold pendant with glass stone. Courtesy Museum of London
A substantial number of Anglo-Saxon artefacts and 20 burials were also found on the site indicating that a building almost certainly stood here from the 6th century onwards. Perhaps the site was part of the nearby settlement of Lundenwic, situated in modern day Covent Garden. Many thousands of burials, probably medieval in the main, were removed in the 19th century, too, pointing to a sacred use of the site right through from Saxon times.
Finds from the site from the Anglo-Saxon period include an exquisite gold pendant with blue glass stone and copper hanging bowl decorated with an enamelled motif – all grave goods. The hanging bowl would have contained an offering of hazelnuts, symbolising rebirth.
Anglo-Saxon burial found at St Martin's showing hanging bowl and grave goods. © Andy Chopping, Museum of London
A church has been on the site since at least the 13th century, but the current work is attempting to restore the church to the original 1721 design of James Gibbs, with facilities fit for the 700,000 visitors it receives each year. So far £29 million has been raised towards the cost of restoring the church and its grounds, with just over £15 million of this coming from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The Roman skeleton will most likely be displayed to the public at some time, but as yet no definite plans have been made as to where it will go on show.
“This is an unprecedented find that offers a tantalising glimpse into a period of London’s history whose traces barely survive,” said Gordon Malcom of MoLAS. “It will offer rich possibilities in telling new stories of London and Londoners during the decline of the Roman influence before the arrival of the Angles and Saxons later in the 5th century AD.”