When Wessex archaeologists lifted the lid of a three-tonne stone coffin from Boscombe Down, Wiltshire, last year, they were greeted by the tender sight of a woman cradling a young child in her arms. The sealed environment within the coffin had slowed down the process of decay sufficiently to preserve the remains of the mother and child, along with several scraps of their clothing, including their shoes.
The mother's deerskin shoes would have been the epitome of early 3rd century AD Roman fashion: with cork insoles and a fur lining, they are the best preserved examples in Britain of this sort of luxury shoe which was imported from the Mediterranean. She also wore a necklace of Whitby jet, and traces of her clothing have been preserved by a chemical reaction with the metal of her bronze ankle bangle. The child was buried wearing calf skin shoes which are so far unparalleled in Britain. The coffin is now on display in Salisbury Museum.
Boscombe Down is best known as the site of the important Early Bronze Age burials of the Boscombe Bowmen and the Amsebury Archer, but it is also the site of five separate Roman cemeteries, containing almost 300 graves. Although many contained wooden coffins, this is the only one with a stone coffin. Dating to around AD 220, the burial is the earliest in its cemetery and the later burials clustered around it.
All five cemeteries date from between AD 200 and 400, although some burials may date to the 5th century. Four contain between 40 and 50 graves with one much larger one holding at least a 100 graves – in which the stone coffin was found. It is not yet known whether subtle differences between each of the cemeteries indicate that they were used by different clans, or groups who worshiped different gods, but a number of grave groups are set within ditched enclosures, like gardens of remembrance, that might have been surrounded by a hedge. It is thought that the people buried in the cemeteries had lived in the nearby Roman village whose site is known today as Butterfield Down.