Two Roman lead coffins were recently discovered in a quarry in Surrey. (PHOTO: Wessex Archaeology)

Two decorated Roman lead coffins have been uncovered during recent work at a quarry in Surrey.

Only a few hundred burials involving such caskets are known from the whole of Britain, with these latest examples discovered by Wessex Archaeology during work on behalf of Sibelco, a raw materials company.

The coffins formed part of a group of burials that lay within a small L-shaped cemetery enclosure. Aligned east to west, the caskets were each of similar size, measuring 1.9m long by 0.45m wide and 0.36m high. Staining of the soil within the grave fill suggests that they may have originally been encased in larger wooden coffins – something that ongoing scientific analysis is hoped to confirm.

Both coffins were made from soldered sheets of cast lead, and their lids were decorated with images of scallop shells set within triangles and rectangles formed from beaded straps. Scallop motifs are common decorations on the lids of Roman lead coffins, particularly on those found in the Thames Valley area. It is believed that they were associated with the Roman idea of the journey to the underworld, but in the Romano-Celtic culture, it may also refer to fertility and rebirth.

Unfortunately the caskets had been distorted over time, causing their lids to collapse inwards and sand to accumulate inside. This meant that the human remains that they contained were in rather poor condition and a full osteological assessment could not be carried out successfully. Nevertheless, Wessex Archaeology was able to identify the partial skeletons of an adult and an infant (most likely younger than 6 months old at the time of death) in one, and the partial remains of another adult in the other.

The cemetery contained another four interments, which seem to have included wooden coffins. Three of the graves held fragments of badly degraded wood, but in the fourth only a few iron nails survived to hint at the presence of a casket.

This article appeared in CA 348.

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