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The Spitalfields Roman Woman

July 26, 2019
by the gentle author

Curator of Human Osteology, Rebecca Redfern watches over her charge

In his Survey of London 1589, John Stow wrote about the discovery of pots of Roman gold coins buried in Spitalfields and it had long been understood that ancient tombs once lined the road approaching London, just as they did along the Appian Way in Rome. Yet it was only in the nineteen-nineties, when large scale excavations took place prior to the redevelopment of the Spitalfields Market, that the full extent of the Roman cemetery was uncovered.

In March 1999, a Roman stone sarcophagus containing a rare lead coffin decorated with scallop shells came to light, indicating the burial of someone of great wealth and high status. Grave goods of fine glass and jet were buried between the coffin and the sarcophagus. It was the first unopened sarcophagus to be found in London for over a century and when the entire assemblage was removed to the Museum of London, the coffin was opened to reveal the body of a young woman in her early twenties, buried in ceremonial fashion. In the week after the opening of the coffin, ten thousand Londoners came to pay their respects to the Spitalfields Roman woman. She was the most astonishing discovery of the excavations yet, as the years have passed and more has been learnt about her, the enigma of her identity has become the subject of increasing fascination.

Analysis of residue in the coffin revealed that her head lay upon a pillow of bay leaves, her body was embalmed with oils from the Arab world and the Mediterranean, and wrapped in silk which had been interwoven with fine gold thread. Traces of Tyrian purple were also found, perhaps from a blanket laid over the coffin. Such an elaborate presentation suggests she may have been displayed to her family and friends seventeen hundred years ago as part of funeral rites.

The sarcophagus and grave goods are on public exhibition at the Museum but, thanks to Rebecca Redfern, Curator of Human Osteology, Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie and I had the privilege to visit the Rotunda where the human remains are stored and view the skeleton of the Spitalfields Roman woman. Deep in a windowless concrete bunker filled with metal shelving stacked with cardboard boxes, containing the remains of thousands of Londoners from the past, lay the bones of the woman. We stood in silent reverence with just the sound of distant traffic echoing.

Rebecca is the informal guardian of the Spitalfields woman and remembers switching  on the television to watch news of the discovery as a student. Today, she has a four-year-old daughter of her own. “The work went on for so many years that a lot of couples met working in Spitalfields,” Rebecca admitted to me, “and there is now a whole generation of ‘Spital babies’ born to those archaeologists.”

“She’s five foot three and delicately built, petite like a ballet dancer,” Rebecca continued, turning her attention swiftly from the living to the dead and gesturing protectively to the bones laid out upon the table. While some might objectify the skeleton as a specimen, Rebecca relates to the Spitalfields Roman woman and all the other twenty thousand remains in her care as human beings. “They’re able to tell us so much about themselves, it’s impossible not to regard them as people,” she assured me.

Recent research into the isotopes present in the teeth of the Spitalfields Roman woman have revealed an exact match with those found in Imperial Rome, which means that her origin can be traced not just to Italy but to Rome itself. “I find it very sad that she came so far and then died so young,” Rebecca confided, recognising the lack of any indication of the cause of death or whether the woman had given birth. Contemplating the presence of the skeleton with its delicate bones dyed brown by lead, it is apparent that the Spitalfields Roman woman holds her secrets and has many stories yet to tell.

More than seventy-five Roman burials were uncovered at the same time as the sarcophagus, many interred within wooden coffins and some only in shrouds. You might say these represented the earliest wave of immigration to arrive in Spitalfields.

“People were so mobile,” Rebecca explained to me, “We found a fourteen-year-old girl from North Africa whose mother was European. A legion from North Africa was sent to guard Hadrian’s Wall and we have found tagine cooking pots that may been theirs. I pity those men – how they must have suffered in the cold.”

The only Roman sarcophagus discovered in London in our time was uncovered in Spitalfields in 1999

Inside the stone sarcophagus an elaborately decorated lead coffin was discovered

At the Museum of London, the debris was removed to uncover the pattern of scallop shells

The lead coffin was opened to reveal the body of a young woman

Photographs of coffin & excavations copyright © Museum of London

Portrait of Rebecca Redfern & photographs of skeletal details copyright © Sarah Ainslie

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Inside the Rotunda At The Museum Of London

14 Responses leave one →
  1. Susan permalink
    July 26, 2019

    I wish the Kennis brothers – who recreated the very life-like Neanderthal and Homo Sapiens figues for the Natural History Museum – could have a chance to recreate her face (or even her whole body). It would be so interesting to see.

  2. Ian Silverton permalink
    July 26, 2019

    Interesting article GA, but on a guided tour visit to MOLA in Eagle Wharf Street in HoxtonLondon N1 was told by my guide a young American Lady,they had 5 years of work in front of them to clear up before they could ever start looking at more old Bones to which she ponted too boxes and boxes floor to ceiling on racks full of old London Bones, as we talked more was arriving with gusto, Mortimer House is the Building it’s all stored in named after the Great Man Himself. Time to stop digging up any more and start housing the poor UK citizens,its money wasted IMHO enough is enough. Good luck.

  3. Richard Smith permalink
    July 26, 2019

    Resting all this time through the centuries. Sweet Roman lady, as you are we shall become.

  4. July 26, 2019

    Magnificent sarcophagus and surprising decoration. I had never seen one with scallop leaves. I totally agree with Rebecca Redfern’s comment about people being mobile. Thank you, G.A.

  5. Paul Loften permalink
    July 26, 2019

    Will we ever know who she was ? Perhaps these once venerated remains say that all of us are like dust in the wind.
    Thank you for this most interesting story

  6. Laura Williamson permalink
    July 26, 2019

    I’ve been reading about the Roman period girl discovered when the Baltic Exchange was demolished and the Gherkin built. She was eventually reburied with great respect close to that site. It would be nice to think that eventually perhaps this lady could return to Spitalfields, to what was her resting place for so long.

  7. Heather Cole permalink
    July 26, 2019

    In the midst of life — Death. Incredibly moving.

  8. Carol Onstad permalink
    July 26, 2019

    I feel compelled now to visit the Spitalfields
    area if it is possible.

  9. gkbowood permalink
    July 26, 2019

    Such lovely teeth! I bet she had a wonderful smile…

  10. Gary Arber permalink
    July 26, 2019

    The lady in that burial was treated far better than the one found in Armagh Road, Bow in around the 1960’s. The gas men digging to repair a pipe in Armagh Road hit this slab of stone and when it was removed it was a sarcophagus of the same size and thickness as the one in the photos
    The authorities wanted to take it to the museum but the vicar of St. Paul’s Church in St. Stephen’s Road said that it must be displayed at the back of the Church for the local people to see.
    The body was the wife of a Roman man but when the man died they opened it up and put his body into it. What we saw was the male skeleton laid out in all of his glory and his poor wife swept into a pile of bones at his feet. The sarcophagus was forgotten for many years and eventually the bones were taken by someone researching illnesses and the sarcophagus remained until the Church was altered. Health and safety was different in those days, in the pictures in the blog the researchers were in white overalls and face masks. but in the days when we were looking in the Church the lid was laid alongside the coffin and everything was left unattended. I picked up and examined an interesting pin that was beside the body,I am now 87 so I suffered no ill effects.

  11. Andrea Hay permalink
    July 26, 2019

    I remember this lady and her burial being the subject of an episode of Meet The Ancestors several years ago. This included a facial reconstruction in clay, complete with elaborate hair in the Roman fashion. It was quite awe-inspiring to meet this woman and her possessions when I visited the Museum Of London as a result of watching this episode.

  12. Saige Jane England permalink
    July 27, 2019

    Another fabulous article full of insightful information and such great photos thank you. I wonder how many of us are descended from Romans like this woman, how many have that North African ancestry. We are so much more mixed than we have been led to believe, our blood runs thick with the cultures of many. These heritages are fascinating. Like many, I have found that my deep DNA via gedmatch throws up all sorts of links, connecting me to rich parts of the world and people who travelled far and wide to reach the cold isles of Britain. I only wish we could reach back through the years and ask them to speak to us. Keep up the great work.

  13. Pamela Traves permalink
    July 28, 2019

    This is so Amazing!! I hope that they can learn more about this Lovely Young Woman. Thank You So Very Much!!

  14. December 19, 2020

    On a previous article it was mentioned that this lady was probably in her teens when she was married to top powerful Roman administrator who would have been twice her age. Women marring men of power twice or thrise their age was the custom not only in those days but it goes on even nowadays it seems. Her parents with close connections to the Senate or the Caesar himself would have given her in marriage with great expectations and then for her to pass away so young so far away from home is rather sad.

    Perhaps she was bumped off probably because she had an affair with a younger man and would have considered a security threat to the Roman rule. As a cover up the Romans would have given her an elaborate funeral with all kinds of paraphernalia buried with her. Also it’s interesting to see the work of art on the coffin lid. Those shells on the lid – does it mean she was an Admiral’s daughter.

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