Extremely rare Roman sarcophagus lifted from ancient Southwark burial site

18 July 2017

A Roman sarcophagus has been found, excavated, and lifted from its ancient grave at a site on Harper Road. It is being moved to the Museum of London, where its contents will be exhumed.

This is an exceptional find for London, where only two similar late Roman sarcophagi have been discovered in their original place of burial in recent years: one from St Martin-in-the Fields near Trafalgar Square (2006) and one from Spitalfields in 1999.

The excavation, which began in January this year, revealed a large robber trench around the coffin and found that the lid had been moved, suggesting that the coffin was discovered and robbed in the past. However, it is possible that only the precious items were removed, and the less valuable artefacts, such as the body itself, still remain within the stone sarcophagus.

Southwark and the City of London are remarkable in being the only two London Boroughs that have their own, in-house, dedicated archaeologist. Southwark Council champions archaeology and has dedicated planning policies to ensure that the borough’s ancient history is identified, protected and managed for future generations. The Harper Road excavation is just one of the many archaeological projects that are currently running across Southwark.

Recent archaeological research has shown that this area of Roman Southwark is the focus of ritual activity. We now know that this area forms a complex ritual landscape containing various religious and funerary monuments and a vast dispersed Roman cemetery (sites such as Dickens Square, Lant Street and Trinity Street) incorporating a range of burial practices, often with exotic grave goods sourced from across the Roman Empire.

The burial of a 14 year old girl from nearby Lant Street was one of the richest internments from the Southwark cemetery and is without parallel in Britain; her 4th century chalk-burial contained a bone inlay box, an ivory clasp knife depicting a leopard, and glassware.

It is evident that Roman London was a multi-cultural city, with a population spanning the empire and adding to the mix of different religious practices and beliefs. If the skeleton survives within the sarcophagus it will be a fascinating contribution to current archaeological research.

Gillian King, Senior Planner: Archaeology, at Southwark Council, said: “In my long archaeological career I have excavated many hundreds of burials, but this is the first Roman sarcophagus I have ever discovered, still surviving in its original place of deposition. I have seen them in museums, but I think part of me believed that they had probably all been found by now!

“It really is a very special discovery.  Personally, I find it really fascinating to contemplate that this area - which we are now so familiar with - was once, during the Roman period, so completely different.  It really does make me feel very honoured that my role at Southwark Council contributes to protecting amazing archaeological treasures like this, and our work means that we can ensure that the historic environment is championed and preserved for the enjoyment of us and future generations.”

Cllr Peter John, the Leader of Southwark Council, said: “This is a remarkable and exciting find. In Southwark we take our duty as custodians of the borough’s rich, varied and important archaeological heritage very seriously. 

“This Roman sarcophagus is the find of a lifetime and a credit to the council’s commitment to ensuring that the borough’s history is properly conserved.”

Page last updated: 18 July 2017