The ancient dead speak

Last weekend, me and my fellow explorer Craig, visited an exhibition that we’ve been looking forward to for a while. At the Museum of London Docklands, ‘Roman Dead‘.

This exhibition tells the stories of some of the people of Roman London, as seen through the evidence of their mortal remains, and of the funerary practices and methods of commemoration used by Roman Londoners. Literary evidence tells us that the ancient burial grounds of Londinium began to be discovered at least as early as the 1570s as John Stowe writes, in his A Survey of London in 1598, that as the ground around Spitalfields was being broken up for clay, the workers discovered cinerary urns (pots used to hold the ashes of people who were cremated), the cremated  bones and other remains of earlier Londoners.

This burial group, dating to 60-200CE, was found at Bishopsgate. The large glass jar would have held the cremated remains (in the tray in front), with a samian cup used as a lid.

The smaller glass jars may have been used to hold oils and perfumes used in the funerary rites or offerings to the gods.

I was interested to see the map of known burial grounds around Londinium (in red), particularly the two on the Southwark islands.

The burial grounds were situated just outside the city limits to avoid the pollution of the living by the dead and archaeologists have unearthed evidence of a wide range of funerary practices carried out by the people of London. The exhibitions includes evidence of cremations and inhumations (burials), a range of grave goods, buried with the deceased, and evidence of some more unusual practices. For example, the skeletal remains of a woman whose skull was removed, after death and possibly much later, after the body had decomposed, and placed on top of her pelvis.

As it is today, so it was in Roman London. We see people from all over the Roman world; from Britain and all parts of mainland Europe, the Middle-East and North Africa, and they all came to, or travelled through Londinium. Some of them died here. Some of these different funerary practices may have been influenced by people’s different areas of origin, by changing tastes and even by changing religions, but some perhaps also by the desire to ‘do what Granddad would have wanted’, possibly harking back to older tribal or cultural traditions not current in Roman Britain but which, in the face of death, felt to surviving family members or friends like the right thing to do.

The objects in the exhibition work around the people in the exhibition. Well, the remains of the people anyway. As well as cremated remains, on display are the skeletal remains of 28 individuals. With funerary collections, I particularly like to see the whole assemblege, or as much as possible of it, displayed together, if possible reassembled as it was in the ground. I think that seeing all of the objects together with the remains can tell us something about the people themselves, but also about their loved ones, their friends, the people who arranged and carried out the funeral rites. We can’t see the remains exactly as those people saw them at the point of burial, but it’s the closest that we can get.

So here are a few of the grave goods found:

The centrepiece of exhibition is this well preserved stone sarcophagus found last year near Harper Road in Southwark.

Stone sarcophagi are rare in London, this is only the third one found, so it’s a big deal. Most people buried in Roman London would have been buried in wooden caskets or possibly just laid in the ground wrapped in a shroud, so the lady interred here, and her family, must have been quite wealthy to be able to afford such a burial. This is the first time that the sarcophagus has been shown and I was struck by how big it is. It’s not overly wide, but it did look really long.

In the accompanying film archaeologists, conservation experts and one of the curators talk us through the discovery, recovery, investigation and conservation of the sarcophagus. When it was discovered, the archaeologists could see that it was badly cracked so it wasn’t excavated onsite. Instead a wooden frame was constructed around it, holding it firmly together and allowing it to be lifted out of the ground by crane, still filled with earth that had accumulated in it, and taken to the lab to be excavated in more controlled conditions. The breaks int he stone are very visible, even after conservation.

In the lab the remains of the occupant and a few fragments of the grave goods were found, already disturbed by grave robbers. There’s no way to know all of the objects that the lady was buried with, but the few pieces that remain include an engraved intaglio, probably from a finger-ring, and a tiny fragment of gold, possibly the remains of an earring.

The object that I think amazed me the most was this:

It may not look like much at first, just a rough plank of wood. And so it is, but it has been reused as the base of a wooden coffin. Close inspection reveals some marks left on the wood. The imprints left by the body.

The marks left by the knees.

And by the ribs.

This, for me, was the object that really made me go “Wow!”. The dead really do leave a lasting impression.

The Roman Dead exhibition is at Museum of London Docklands until 28th October 2018 and it’s free to visit. Yes! Free!



Archaeology at high speed

Visiting the Musee d’Aquitaine in Bordeaux, I made my usual mistake; spending and hour-and-a-half in the Roman galleries and only then twigging that there are about another six galleries to see plus a temporary exhibition *eyes-roll*.

In this case, the temporary exhibition in question was ‘L’archéologie à Grande Vitesse : 50 sites fouillés entre Tours et Bordeaux’ (trans: ‘High-speed archaeology at high speed: 50 sites searched between Tours and Bordeaux’) an exhibition which takes in 400,000 years of human activity along the new 340km long high-speed rail route, the “Sud Europe Atlantique”.

The exhibition is very much about the archaeology and the processes of investigation, with artefacts used to illustrate points along the way and to tell the stories of the people living in this region of France away from the main known archaeological sites. Covering such a huge time period could result in a scattergun approach but concentrating on the process of archaeology, and the work of the archaeologists gives the exhibition structure and following the rail line provides the ‘why?’ for the exhibition, as well as giving us a thread to follow.

This reminded me very much of the excellent Crossrail exhibition presented by the Museum of London (and MOLA and Crossrail) in London last year. The major engineering works are the rationale for the excavations with the archaeology uncovered being the main focus of the exhibition. Of course, Crossrail took us through mostly urban and industrial sites whereas the Sud Europe Atlantique takes us through swathes of countryside where there has been little or no urban development, as well as rural settlement sites.

The exhibition includes films from the excavations and some pretty nifty interactive screens where we can see into tunnels and 360° around inside sites. I liked the way that the screen view was also projected onto the walls.

There are sections on sites representing different time periods from the paleolithic to the modern, with models showing how the sites may have looked, with interpretations based on things like visible wall-lines, the positions of post-holes, pits, wells, and so on. The finds on display range from whole burials, through to pottery, incised gems, stone tools, coins, part of a Roman pulley (my favourite) and a mystery object (the last 2 images below), listed as “objet indetermine (antiquite)”. It’s ~6-7cm long). Know what it is? Answers on a postcard to Musee d’Aquitaine.

Speaking of site models, the exhibition also included these stunningly realistic models of life on a construction/excavation site.

Every details is accurate, careful excavation of articulated skeletons,

site photography,

section drawing and plotting points using a dumpy level,


the finds tent,

and more.

There’s even a naughty-but-cute Site Dog.

‘L’archéologie à Grande Vitesse : 50 sites fouillés entre Tours et Bordeaux’ closes on 4th March 2018.

From the ashes

I’m certainly not the first to post a ‘first look’ review of the newest museum space in London, and I’m pretty sure that I won’t be the last, but here I go. Just a quick look.

By now I’m sure you’re all familiar with the story of London’s Temple of Mithras. Discovered during the clearance for redevelopment of a bombed out site near Cannon Street (1952-4). Saved for the nation (sort of) due to intense public interest. Relocated to the wholly inappropriate site on the concourse of Temple Court, Queen Victoria Street. And there it sat for 50 years do so until…

Now, finally, returned and restored to (more or less) its original site following the re-redevelopment of the site by Bloomberg for its new European headquarters. So, after much waiting and with high expectations, I was finally there.

Oooooh, it’s good. It is. It’s good. I mean, it’s Bloomberg, who have all the money in the world, so it’s a bit ‘corporate sleek and shiny’ but that’s ok. It’s nicely done. Understated rather than flashy. On entering, visitors’ first encounter is with the modern as the entrance hall, Bloomberg Space, holds (at the moment) a tapestry and sculpture by Isabel Nolan but we’re soon into the Roman, which is what we’re all here for, with a wall of finds from the 2011-14 excavations.

This collection is just a tiny proportion of the ~14,000 artefacts excavated from the site and includes a representative sample of everyday objects, as well as a few star finds.

This is the sort of display that could be a bit frustrating as the floor-to-ceiling format means that many of the objects are way above eye level. But, never fear, visitors are provided with ipads giving close-up views and information about the objects on display. This can also be accessed on your phone, which is handy.

From there, visitors begin to descend down to the earlier street levels, with a timeline running down the stairs for orientation. You can see how far back in time you are travelling, the lower down you go.

At the next level down we’re starting to get into the mithraic mindset. Three interactive stations give information about mithraism, about the cult in the Roman world, its iconography and possible meanings and about the London Mithraeum specifically.

I was particularly interested in the info on the London Mithraeum. This is also, basically, a waiting area as the visit to remains of the mithraeum itself includes an av presentation which gives visitors an impression of the atmosphere and sounds of the mithraeum in use. This runs about every 20 mins and then there’s time to stay and have a proper look at the remains too.

And here it is, finally, the London Mithraeum.

The presentation is, again, quite understated. Nothing too flashy. Even the av atmospherics aren’t over the top. They just give an impression of what a mithraeum would have been like, subtly filling in the spaces where the walls and columns would have been and bringing just enough life into the space. Looking at the remains themselves, this reconstruction is much more sympathetic than the 1960s one. Nuclear cement bonding…gone. Crazy crazy-paving…gone. Instead we have, as far as possible, the original remains, including the timber risers for the steps, the well and (look closely by the entrance) the door pivots.

So, all in all, this new museum space is a bit of a triumph. I could probably have done without Joanna Lumley’s breathy delivery on the voice-over, and I’d like to see some more detailed info about the recent MOLA excavations and the actual process of reconstructing the remains. Maybe just the addition of the MOLA publications for reference or printed copies of the  excellent (and free!) downloadable booklet. But these are minor points and personal preferences.

The London Mithraeum is free to visit but you do need to book a slot. Get booking because it’s proving popular. You get a free booklet when you visit and the use of the aforementioned ipads for info onsite.

Raising The Curtain

This week, fellow LAARC volunteer Guy organised a brilliant Friday afternoon visit for himself, John and me (aka, the Dice Brigade). London was home to some of the most famous Elizabethan/Jacobean theatres, playhouses and theatrical spaces including The Globe, The Rose, The Theatre and The Curtain. This visit was to the ongoing excavations at The Curtain in Shoreditch (the overall site has been called the Stage by the developers).


The Curtain was one of the London theatres in which the plays of Shakespeare were performed during his lifetime. Indeed, this is the site of the first performance of Henry V, and Shakespeare himself acted there.

MOLA, Museum of London Archaeology, has been carrying out these excavations and now the site has been opened up for visits. The tour started off with a talk about the site and excavations, and some key points to look out for on the site. Only five of these Elizabethan/Jacobean theatres have been excavated and MOLA has been involved in all five of the excavations, so they know what they’re looking at.

What was, possibly, most surprising about the site was that it didn’t look something like this…

Map L85c no. 7, detail of Globe

It looked something like this!


Rather than the “Wooden O” of Henry V‘s Prologue, The Curtain was a rectangular structure, constructed from a combination of a pre-existing tenement building at the front, a boundary  wall at the back, and two new side galleries to connect the two, with an internal yard.

On site, the front part of the theatre has been pretty comprehensibly trashed by later buildings, huge chunks of 1970s concrete, in particular, mean that only a few scant traces remain.


There is a little bit of the entrance to the theatre and a sliver of the yard surface still in-situ though.


The stage end of the theatre is a bit of a different matter, as there are some really good remains still in-situ.


Here we could get an proper idea of the size of the theatre, and it’s really pretty big. To take the photo above, I was standing at  about the mid-point between the two side galleries. Looking in this direction, the side gallery is about where the ground begins to slope upwards in the trench. There is a blue line, but it might be a bit difficult to see.

In this close-up you can see part of the low wall that formed a platform onto which the wooden super-structure was built. This kept the wooden elements out of the wet marshy ground.


In front of the wall is a hard, compacted surface which made up the yard where the Groundlings stood to watch performances.

The archaeologists haven’t yet found any traces of the stage, but they do know where it would have been.


As there was a lot of later redevelopment in the 17th and 18th centuries, with the theatre being converted back to tenements, there are also the remains of flats, drains, floors and hearths from these later periods.



There was also something that I’d never even heard of before, the remains of a knuckle-bone floor.


This is literally an area of flooring, on the inside of the entrance to the building, which is made from the cut-off foot bones of sheep. These were embedded into the floor to create a sort of door mat on which boots could be cleaned before entering the building.


The current redevelopment of the site is, as with so many London sites, for (luxury?) flats. However, the developers seem to be taking their responsibilities particularly seriously when it comes to recording, preserving and making accessible the history of the site to the local community and the general public more widely. We were told that the archaeologists have been given a, frankly, remarkable length of time to excavate the site. Significantly,  not only are the remains going to stay in-situ and on display, but there is also going to be a performance space built into the new development. Time will tell if this comes to fruition but it’s heartening that some developers are at least thinking about their impact on the communities that they (sometimes) crash into. This is particularly striking in contrast to the current government’s attempts to weaken legislation in relation to the archaeological investigations and recording of sites for development. We stand to end up back in a situation where developers are allowed to do this (below) to the site of the first performance of Henry V without even ensuring that the destroyed archaeology has been properly recorded.


If you think that we should be taking our heritage seriously, have a read of this for more information –

Thanks to Guy for organizing this visit and getting the tickets and thanks to MOLA for opening up the site for visits. For more on this excavation, follow MOLAs excellent blog here


Roman Counter Culture: Museum pieces

This was the view from my window this week.


The wall running along the bottom of the photo is the medieval city wall, built on the foundations of the Roman wall which formed part of the city wall and the fort. We’ve relocated for a little while, from the LAARC to The Museum of London to work on the pieces that are actually on display. Glynn had already swiped the necessary dice from the display cases, just for a little while, so we can create digital records of them for the Museum’s Collections Online.

As we only had access to one scanner, we worked on the basis of a division of labour. John scanned the dice and saved the images while Guy and I worked on the descriptions, weights and measures. Then we all started on cleaning up and assembling the images.


I started with a nice Type 2 die…


One of the plugs was missing, but otherwise it was in pretty good shape.

And then this one (below). The 6 face looks nice and square, albeit with slightly wobbly pips.


The 3 face, somewhat less square.


It’s a bit of a wonky one. Most of the faces are different sizes and there’s a distinct curve to the 1 face.


This one is a bit (lot) more regular.


We’ve see a great deal of variety between the dice we’ve been working on. That raises questions about manufacturing techniques and the rationales for production.

From the museum collection, we came across two that looked almost like a pair.


They came from the same site, although not from the same contexts, and Guy and I did think that they looked like they might have been made by the same person. This was just because of the size and shape, and the way that the pips look. The sides are not very even, with the 6 and the 1 faces being nice and square, but the 2,3,4 and 5 faces being quite rectangular. They would have had a definite tendency to land with either the 6 or the 1 face uppermost. They looked like they were reasonably nicely made, but have suffered some damage.

 P1400407.  P1400406.

They were recovered from a cemetery context, which made me wonder – RANDOM SPECULATION ALERT!! – is it possible that these dice were being made specifically as funerary objects? I wondered this because their shape does make them a bit dodgy for use as gaming dice, but wouldn’t matter at all if they were made as symbolic objects to be buried with the dead. They could then be made from oddly-sized off-cuts of bone, and it wouldn’t matter.

I’m going to have a little think about this, and try to have a look at more dice found as part of burials to see if there really are any patterns, or if we just have a slightly tipsy dice-maker here.

More from the Museum next time.

RAC / TRAC 2014

I spent the last weekend in Reading, mostly at the University, attending the (fairly) mega-conference that is RAC/TRAC 2014.


For those who don’t know, RAC is the Roman Archaeology Conference, which is held every other year and TRAC is the Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference, which is held annually. This sometimes ends up as a double header, as it has this year, hosted by Reading University.

I’m not going to attempt to give précis of all the sessions and papers that I attended, but just to give a flavour of the sorts of subjects and issues being tackled. The final afternoon was spent on a field trip, which is always fun.

For the first morning session, I opted for ‘Recent Work on the Roman Frontiers’ with the highlight (for me) provided by David Mattingly and Martin Sterry, ‘The Frontiers of Roman North Africa in the Satellite Age’, on the use of remote sensing in locating and mapping Roman and other ancient sites in North Africa. This area of the Roman world is my pet interest. Here, remote sensing, utilising high-resolution satellite technology, is especially useful because of the relative difficulty of accessing sites, and the large geographical area covered. The results so far of this ongoing research project support the increasing evidence for extensive settlement, mixed land use and movement and interaction between those living along, and on either side of, the Limes Africanus. It was great to see their maps, covered in swaths of yellow dots and squares, each one a settlement of one sort or another. This made me think about the landscapes I saw when I visited Tunisia earlier this year.  Landscapes which, at first glance look ‘natural’ but which, it quickly becomes apparent, have been adapted for use by the people settled there; terraced slopes, field systems, drainage ditches, floodwater management and defence systems. All these types of large-scale land management techniques would have been familiar to the people living here 1500++ years ago. Locating and mapping these sites is the first step to understanding them and their place in the wider context of ancient North Africa, and thereby get to see a view of ancient North Africa that was written out of history by later, primarily colonial commentaries.

Then, Andrew Birley on ‘The Complexity of Intramural and Extramural Relationships on the Northern Frontier of Britain’. By assessing factors such as small finds distributions inside and outside fort wall, Birley has been assessing whether the fort walls really constituted a ‘great divide’ between civilian and military residents.

From landscape to artefacts, my session choice for Friday afternoon was the absolutely rammed ‘Roman metal small finds’ session. There was standing room only in this session, and people were actually being turned away, and no wonder. We were treated to some cracking papers, including ‘Design, function and everyday social practice: a case study on Roman spoons’ from Ellen Swift, Emma Durham’s ‘Metropolitan styling. The figurines from London and Colchester‘, and Immigrant soldiers at Hollow Banks Quarry, Scorton? New work on crossbow brooches, burial rites and isotopes from Hella Eckardt.

And, one of my favourites, Michael Marshall, Natasha Powers and Sadie Watson, presented by Michael Marshall, on ‘‘Treasure’, ‘trash’ and taphonomy: Approaches to the excavation and interpretation of Roman finds from the Walbrook valley’. Love love love those Walbrook sites and, as these have been excavated relatively recently, I’m also delighted to hear about how the processing and interpretation are progressing. Marshall presented a pretty vivid picture of the trials and tribulations of excavating Walbrook sites, but also the prizes to be had from them. The sheer scale of the site and the “soggy” conditions made even seeing small finds fiendishly difficult and interpreting the results once all the materials has been processed will, no doubt, be keeping people very busy for a long time to come. Oh, and there was the point at which the ghoulish RAC/TRAC massive found out how dead bodies break up in water – wrists go first, heads bobbing along in the stream… 😀

Saturday morning started off with more small finds, featuring three excellent papers on some exciting things found down the drains. Alissa Whitmore considered the range of non-bathing activities carried out in bath houses, particularly those of a commercial nature, by examining small finds from drains, stoke-holes and other pokey places  in ‘Not just for bathing: Shops and commerce in and around Roman public baths’. Spindle whorls! In a bath house!; then an inordinate quantity of pottery down the loo and in the bathhouse drains in ‘Bathing, eating and communing: Glimpses of daily life from a late antique bathhouse in Gerasa, Jordan’ from Louise Blanke; and great stuff (and hands-on!) on Roman intaglios from Ian Marshman with ‘Down the drain: Understanding the deposition of Roman intaglios and signet rings’.

Although I did want to come back after coffee for ‘Performance in the Holy Cave? Archaeological evidence for the initiations into the Mysteries of Mithras’ by Ines Klenner (which, I hear, was great), I was lured away to the Study Group for Roman Pottery (SGRP) session for the excellent ‘Modes of production in Africa Proconsularis viewed through the amphorae from Portus. A study of vessel technology and society‘ from Pina Strutt. Amphorae have often been used as evidence for trade networks and commodities; merely as containers, with the focus of their contents. Strutt’s investigation of the amphora sherds from Portus, turns the view back on the amphorae themselves and their origins, the locations and social contexts of their production and of their producers, the potters. By comparing practice at two sites in modern Tunisia, at Nabeul; urban, specialist and with professional full time potters, and Guellala, rural, non-specialist, with farmers working part-time/seasonally as potters, Strutt has begun to understand working conditions in the Roman period. Further by examining the amphora sherds themselves, she has begun to focus on the ways that these different manufacturing practices, and the cultural contexts within which this production took place, manifest in the fabric of the amphorae themselves.

Sunday started in Britannia with the ‘Recent Work on Roman Britain’ session. My highlight, unsurprisingly, ‘Recent Work on Roman London’ from MOLA’s Julian Hill. Hill looked along the Walbrook at recent excavations including Bloomberg and 8-10 Moorgate and emphasized that while these are ‘Walbrook’ sites, the excavations teams had great difficulty in actually ascertaining the precise lines of the Walbrook main and tributary channels. Post excavation is currently going on at an accelerated rate for the Bloomberg site because of the planned opening (in 2017) of the new Temple of Mithras site museum. Ongoing interpretation work for this site is also drawing on a wider area, including No.1 Poultry, Walbrook and a few other smaller sites nearby. This will really help to give a much broader view of the area around (what is now) Bank Station, Cannon Street Station, and Dowgate, Vintry and Walbrook Wards. An interesting observation made by Hill was that while the material recovered from Walbrook sites used to be seen as exceptional, the top end of material culture in Londinium, it has become increasingly clear that this material would have been pretty typical. What is exceptional is the state of preservation at these sites. We await, with bated breath, more on the writing tablets.

Although Ian Haynes and Tony Wilmott’s talk on ‘The Roman Temples Project, Maryport’ had obvious appeal, I decided to go all foodie for the last session, starting with ‘Bread across the Empire: case studies from Britain, Italy and Egypt’ from Roberta Tomber. Interesting stuff, bread. As are all staple foods. They’re everywhere, in some way shape or form, and so offer possibilities for comparisons across different regions, climatic zones, cultural and historical contexts and social strata. Tomber’s (early days) examination takes in the material evidence from Pompeii – representing ‘Roman’ culture, several sites in Egypt – with its very distinct cultural background and exceptional preservation, and Britain – a far western province and a contrast with Egypt in terms of climate, and with its own distinct pre-Roman culture. Tomber considered the use of pots, trays and moulds in bread making, but this highlighted the fact that none of these is actually necessary for bread making. Hmm, tricky. How do you use pottery evidence for studying a process/product that doesn’t necessarily need pottery?

These are just some of my top choices from the weekend*, but if you use Twitter, you can see what other attendees had to say with the following hashtags and @s:  #TRAC2014,  #RAC2014,  #rfg2014,  @TRAC_conference,  @HadranicSoc,  @RomanFindsGrp. You can also find out more and join the conversation at

Sunday afternoon was given over to a field trip to Silchester, Roman Calleva Atrebatum, led by Mike Fulford.

A few random pictures of TRACers and RACees at Silchester


* if anyone feels that I may have misunderstood or misrepresented any of the papers mentioned, please do get in touch. This is just my own personal take on the weekend.