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The Spitalfields Roman Woman

June 1, 2023
by the gentle author

Meet me this Sunday on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral and we will spend the afternoon walking eastward together through the square mile to explore the wonders and the wickedness of the ancient City of London.

Click here to book for The Gentle Author’s City of London walk on Sunday 4th June


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 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

3 Responses leave one →
  1. Richard Burke permalink
    June 1, 2023

    Before being made redundant I worked in Bishopsgate, virtually above the site where the sarcophagus was discovered. I have always had an interest in Roman London going back to the Temple of Mithras at Bucklersbury. It is good to know that research continues after so many years.

  2. June 1, 2023

    A beautiful, poignant reflection of a beloved daughter. Thanks Sarah and the GA.

  3. Karen Rothstein permalink
    June 1, 2023

    This was a wonderful find and for me along either maybe dozen or or two I one I’ll remember. I read me mail nearly daily but don’t save many that capture my interest as this does. Thank you for your dedication to writing and sending these out. •••••• by the way, I live in the USA but have traveled widely throughout the world and hope to do a few more trips, although my age is definitely making it harder.

    Sincerely grateful for your mailings, Karen

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