Athena Review  Vol.2, no.3:   Recent Finds in Archaeology

London's Leading Lady

Sixteen hundred years ago in Roman London (Londinium), a young woman in her early twenties died. Her body was wrapped in rich cloth woven of silk and gold, and under her head was placed a pillow of bay leaves. She was laid in a coffin of lead, placed in a limestone sarcophagus. The woman was buried in about AD 375 at a Roman cemetery in the Spitalfields area in east London. East of the mausoleum lay the elaborate marble sarcophagus of the young woman, whose lead coffin was decorated with a scallop shell design. Inside, beneath the lady's skeleton was a layer of silt preserving organic materials, and impressions of a bay leaf wreath beneath her head.

The face of the young woman has been reconstructed by specialists at the University of Manchester, using a forensic technique developed to help identify modern skeletons. After a cast is made from the skull, layers of clay are attached to simulate the facial muscles and soft tissues. Once the face has been modeled, it is cast in wax, with finishing touches, of eyes, hair and coloring added.

[Fig.1: Reconstructed head of the Romano-British lady buried near London in ca. AD 375 (photo: The Museum of London).]

Measurements of the skeleton show that she was well nourished and above average height. Her teeth show signs of decay, suggesting a softer, and perhaps sweeter diet, than other inhabitants of Roman London. No evidence of physical injuries or of childbirth was found, so it is assumed that she may have died of an infectious disease. Lead deposits analyzed from the lady's tooth enamel, absorbed during her life, are different from the local lead of her coffin, suggesting she may have grown up outside Britain. Textile remains found with the burial were of extremely fine, presumably expensive materials. Traces of a plain woven wool fabric found under her head may have been a cushion, while another fragment of silk damask was perhaps used as lining for the coffin. Perhaps most remarkable was gold thread, made by wrapping strips of finely-beaten gold around a core, probably of finely-spun silk. It may have been used as a decorative panel in a larger piece of silk fabric.

In the grave pit, but not in the sarcophagus, other items were found: a jet pin, perhaps a hair decoration; a glass vial, which may have contained perfumed oil; and a circular box made of lignite and coal. Objects of jet were often placed in graves in Roman times, and may have been thought to protect the spirit of the dead woman on her journey to the Underworld. The valuable grave goods, the textiles in which she was wrapped, and the evidence from her skeleton all suggest that she came from a wealthy family from the late Empire, who spared no expense when laying their loved ones to rest.

[sources: Hall, Jenny, Reports, The Museum of London, 2000]

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