A 30-year project to uncover the secrets buried beneath Spitalfields has finally come to a conclusion with new revelations about a Roman burial.

Works in the area started in the 1990s as regeneration kicked off in this part of London, and while a lot was uncovered in the various excavations, it was in March 1999 when the most famous discovery was made.

An undisturbed stone coffin with an inner, elaborately decorated lead coffin.

An aerial view of excavations at Spitalfields (c) MOLA

Since its discovery, research has been going on, and they can now suggest that the lady within was buried wearing an outfit of Chinese damask silk, the best parallels for which come from Palmyra in Syria. Hints of purple bands in the fabric, an exceptionally expensive colour placed this unknown lady at the upper ranks of Roman society.

While she died in early adulthood, analysis indicates that she had spent her childhood in southern Europe, probably in Rome itself – a reflection of the cosmopolitan character of London at the time.

Associated with the new findings for the “Spitalfields Roman woman”, studies of Roman burials in a nearby cemetery have found a few mysteries.

There’s an unusually strong bias in male burials, far more than would be expected for burials by the time London was settled, They hope that future research may find another burial site elsewhere with the missing females, otherwise there’s quite a mystery here.

The other mystery is that they found lots of burials of young children. Not just unusual thanks to the apparent lack of mothers, but also that burials of children in urban cemeteries were quite uncommon in Roman tradition.

They also found a lot of huge five long, glass, pipette-shaped phials – possibly containing perfume, and rarely found in Britain. The quantity found could be suggestive that London was already a wealthy part of the Roman Empire.

Glass phial with the zig-zags (c) MOLA

One phial, in particular, is unique: decorated with delicate zig-zag glass trails, it was found buried next to the foot of the Spitalfields Roman woman sarcophagus.

Overall, the research has added 174 new burials to the area’s record, bringing it to 493documented burials.

Map of the area (c) MOLA

Over the years, a number of monograms about the research have been published, and now the latest, and likely final one has been released.

A new monogram, In the northern cemetery of Roman London: excavations at Spitalfields Market, London E1, 1991–2007 is available from MOLA here, or via Amazon from here.


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One comment
  1. MilesT says:

    At risk of a QI style claxon, should it be monographs, not monograms?

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