Archaeological work in Southwark has uncovered only the third Roman sarcophagus to be found in its original place of burial in London in recent times. (Image: Southwark Council)

Archaeologists working in Southwark have uncovered a late Roman sarcophagus, the contents of which are soon to be examined at the Museum of London’s archive. 

The excavation was carried out at Harper Road by Pre-Construct Archaeology (working on behalf of the archaeological consultancy CGMS, for Galliard Homes), in an area known as the Southern Cemetery. Lying south of the River Thames, on the opposite bank to the city of Londinium, this was a stretch of land just outside Roman Southwark, scattered with roadside burials and mausolea. 

The team’s discoveries here were initially associated more with the living than the dead, though, as they uncovered the surface of a significant Roman road running north-south through the site. This route had evidently been in use for some time, as the substantial ditches bordering it had been recut on multiple occasions. Its discovery – lying to the east of where the road through Southwark is thought to have run – is one of the most exciting aspects of the project, said project manager Tim Bradley, of Pre-Construct Archaeology. 

‘We are still speculating about what this find means, but it is possible that it is part of the elusive alignment of Stane Street – the Roman road to Chichester – or a subsidiary of it’, he said. ‘We though that this would be the culmination of the project – but then we found the sarcophagus’. 

This burial lay on the western side of the newly-discovered road, apparently associated with and cutting into a substantial Roman chalk wall – thought to be part of an earlier mausoleum. The stone coffin was quite plain, marked only by the chisels used in its construction, and measured almost 2.5m in length. Stylistically, it may be 3rd- or 4th-century in date, but later disturbance has taken out the surrounding soil layers that would normally be used to ascertain its age. 

The grave had been robbed, probably in the 18th century, leaving a great trench beside the sarcophagus and a crack in its lid from when the covering had been pried off. So far, the team does not know how much the coffin’s contents have been rifled through, but the sarcophagus has now been taken to the Museum of London (via crane and truck; it weighs 2.5 tons) for careful examination by Pre-Construct Archaeology. 

‘I wonder if the sarcophagus was happened upon by post-medieval individuals who were robbing masonry from the nearby mausoleum’, said Tim. ‘In a sarcophagus like this, you might expect to find a lead coffin containing the body. But if the robbers were after valuable materials they may have taken this too – we will have to wait and see what remains of its original occupant. This is a fascinating site’. 

If its contents have survived, the sarcophagus has the potential to add much to our understanding of late Roman funerary practices; in London, only two examples have been discovered in their original place of burial in recent years: one from St Martin-in-the Fields, near Trafalgar Square, in 2006; and one from Spitalfields in 1999. 

Gillian King, Senior Planner, Archaeology Officer for Southwark Counci, added: ‘It has been an incredible project, revealing lots of complex Roman archaeology, and the field team has done a great job. Personally, I find it really fascinating to contemplate that this area – which we are now so familiar with – was once, during the Roman period’. 

This article will appear in CA 333.

Leave a Reply