Roman Dead at Museum of London Docklands

Death is one of the few inevitable things we can all count on. Whether we’re a prince, a pauper, or anything in between, one day the Grim Reaper comes for all of us. People have been dying for as long as there has been people, yet, despite this, it’s a subject that is still  held at arms length.

I get it, no one likes to contemplate their own mortality.

There are only three types of places that are well equipped to help us learn about the dead.

Funeral parlours for one; how we treat the body after death reveals so much about our cultures and values.

Hospitals for a second; so much of our medical knowledge comes from examining the dead. Including how we ended up being… not alive.

Museums for a third; our business is the past, and chances are, whoever made or used the artefacts on display is no longer with us. This is especially true if we’re looking at Roman Britain.

Roman Dead: Death and Burial in Roman London
Roman Dead: Death and Burial in Roman London

Running until October, the Museum of London Docklands is displaying Roman Dead, exploring what we can learn about the lives of Roman Londoners from their remains.

Naturally, the exhibition takes a close look at the skeletons of Roman Londoners, with their Curator of Human Osteology (the Museum of London’s resident bone expert) explaining all the things we have learned about these Londoners from their bones. Fascinating things like gender, but also things like diet, health and lifestyle.

More fascinating still was the look to the future. The interpretation was very open about how much is still unknown – a brave move considering how Museums are *supposed* to know everything. They are the experts after all! The Curator who guides us through tells us how much technology has helped us discover in recent years, and is hopeful that in a few more, we’ll learn even more about these people.

At the centre of the exhibition is a rare example of a Roman sarcophagus found in London. It is only the third one discovered since 1999.

Roman sarcophagus found in Harper Road, London
Roman sarcophagus found in Harper Road, London

Roman Dead marks the first time that this object has been displayed, but amongst the skeletons and cremated remains of 28 Roman Londoners and over 200 objects found in burials – there’s a lot to take in in Roman Dead.

Personally, I was most struck by the smaller things. The devil is often in the detail, and the tiny objects are usually the ones with the most interesting stories to tell and the ones most likely to be overlooked.

A Roman Ring with two mice
A Roman Ring with two mice

This ring was found in 1995, and is a wonderful piece of jewellery. The experts at the Museum of London think that it belonged to a woman, and it was likely an engagement or a wedding ring. Look closely at the decoration on it; you’ll see two mice. Not the most romantic of images is it? It’s an image from The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse, a story we’re still familiar with today. Romans would know it from the Satires of Horace.

This literary reference suggests a couple of things; firstly, that the woman could read – not the everyday skill it is today, or at least grew up in a literate household. Secondly, maybe the image is romantic after all. I couldn’t help but wonder if her and her betrothed were like the town and country mice – one from Londinium, and the other from a smaller settlement further afield? It was all too easy for my imagination to start filling in the blanks.

A Medusa Amulet
A Medusa Amulet

It’s fairly common for people to be buried with amulets – we see it all over the place. This amulet is particularly striking. Everything about it screams “PROTECTION” – from the apotropaic Gorgon warding off evil with her stony stare to the shiny black jet used to make the amulet. Jet was believed to have special properties as it can give you quite a shock. The amulet tells us that someone wanted this body to be safe; to be protected.

It doesn’t tell us from what though. The unknown of the after-life? Or maybe something else?

Chicken bones found in a Roman grave in London
Chicken bones found in a Roman grave in London

Roman Dead doesn’t just have human remains on display. There are mice and toads, and, oddly, a chicken. The chicken was found with the skeleton of a child (who was about 4 when they died). It was found alongside a jar that likely contained food. So, was the chicken a snack? A more substantial meal? Or a pet?

We don’t know.

With an exhibition like Roman Dead, with its focus on the dead, it is easy to lose sight of the humanity at the centre of the story. Lifeless bones can so easily become ‘just another artefact,’ or worse yet, a sensationalised circus side-show or Hollywood Monster. Roman Dead was so respectful of the remains in the Museum’s care, and kept in mind that these were once living, breathing people.



3 Comments Add yours

  1. It’s such a good exhibition and as you say, really does put flesh on the bones of the people whose lives it highlights. History books – well, the ones I went to school with, did an injustice to the multi-cultural side of the Roman Empire. This exhibition challenges that view!

  2. marilyneb says:

    Lovely post on a thought-provoking exhibition – I missed the amulet and the lovely little mice ring that you have here.

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