Step Back Into Roman London At This Spectacular Skeletal Exhibition

Roman Dead, Museum of London Docklands ★★★★★

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 69 months ago

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Step Back Into Roman London At This Spectacular Skeletal Exhibition Roman Dead, Museum of London Docklands 5
These are the remains found in the sarcophagus pictured below.

A woman lays in front of us — or more accurately, her skeleton does. She was over 35 years old and died between 275 and 328AD. There are bones of a baby too, so she may have been buried with her child, and a sliver of gold suggests she was interred with an earring. All of this has been determined through two thirds of a skeleton, that was probably grave robbed in the 1600s. It's so impressive, and is one of the reasons why anyone who has any interest in London's history should to the Roman Dead exhibition at Museum of London Docklands.

The meticulous research continues throughout this exhibition, as we learn that a male skeleton suffered a broken leg that healed but would have left him with a limp. These little details really bring to life how Romans lived and died in London.

The tombstone of a 10 year old girl called Marciana.

Analysis of one of the female skeletons shows she had African ancestry, reminding us that any anti-immigration policies are over a thousand years too late, and that London was a cultural melting pot as far back as Roman times.

This exhibition is not for the squeamish. The section on infant bones is particularly heartbreaking — parents be warned. A tiny coffin contains the bones of a baby who may have been born prematurely. Next to it are three boys buried together, perhaps siblings. The bones suggest they did not live in particularly sanitary conditions.

The sarcophagus that may be found in the exhibition.

It's not all skeletons though. We see bone fragments from cremations, one having taken place in a pit near this author's university halls of residence on Great Dover Street. Knowing the locations of the remains adds further resonance — these people may have walked in the exact same places that we pass every day.

A funerary monument of a lion on top of a stag is there to symbolise the unstoppable power of death and it's sobering to think people a thousand years from now may be digging up our remains to identify how we lived.

A skull showing signs of a violent death.

Offerings of food and wine were often included with burials so bones from all sorts of domestic animals may be found in this show, alongside the vases they were kept in, and a superbly preserved stone sarcophagus.

The strangest skeleton has had its head removed and placed between the legs, a ritual that has the curators stumped as to why this could be; it's nice to know that we don't have all the answers and we can leave our imagination to fill in the gaps.

A glass dish found buried with a body.

The show is a little macabre, but it's one of the finest London history exhibitions we've seen. Many Londoners may not have been to the Museum of London Docklands and this is the perfect opportunity to pay it a visit and catch this fantastic free exhibition.

Roman Dead is on at Museum of London Docklands until 28 October. Entrance is free.

All images courtesy Museum of London.

Last Updated 29 May 2018