‘Around the piles a careful troop attends, to watch the wasting flames, and weep their burning friends…’ Virgil, Aeneid, Book XI, 1st century BC
At the heart of the new Roman Dead exhibition at the Museum of London, Docklands, is a rare roman stone sarcophagus. It was found in 2017 in Southwark, south London and it is quite remarkable that it is already on display when the wheels of construction, archaeology, and exhibitions can often turn so slowly. It is 1,600 years old, it weighs 2.5 tons and bore the remains of a woman over 35. Analysis of her skeleton tells us there are signs of joint disease in her spine, right forearm and ribs that would have caused pain and stiffness.
It is this amazing object, the woman contained with in it and the story she tells that has formed the basis of a stunning exhibition that unpacks and explores Roman funerary practices, beliefs and the lives of Roman Londoners. There are a further 11 skeletons in the exhibition alongside 250 carefully selected objects. In total over 27 people including cremated remains are displayed. It is well researched and fascinating, particularly the recent analysis of the bones which brings out the stories of the 11 individuals laid out in their eternal slumber.
For me it was a strangely emotional visit. For once, not because of the display of human remains. The exhibition certainly provokes ethical debate over the display of human remains. The skeletons have been laid out as they were found, in some cases this is quite puzzling, one woman’s head was placed on her pelvis, whilst her lower jaw remained at the top of her spine. It is the decision to display them next to their grave goods that makes you think of who they were in life. I can’t help thinking of the people who chose those objects, perhaps with tears flowing and a great sense of loss, who placed them next to their loved ones.
I still struggle with the display of skeletons, I think about when they were sent to the dark earth, their family and friends praying for a swift journey to the afterlife. In a weird way they have made it. They are resurrected with their gifts intact, we can see their food laid next to them and their favourite bracelets or trinkets.
How would you decide what would see a loved one through to the next life? It makes the skeletons seem more human particularly when compared to the cremated human remains which are unsettlingly piled in perspex boxes. Still bodies, less recognisable and so somehow they seem less human. The bodies have been burnt, all that is left is fragments and pieces, if the Romans treated the body this way does it make it less important how we display it in our life time?
There are parallels for me in the display of glass urns and amphora, originally displayed in the Roman galleries at the Museum of London without their cremated remains they just become vessels, perhaps kitchen ware or part of a posh dinner service. But when you see them with their human contents they take on greater meaning, they are objects that have an aura about them.
The most poignant part of the display are the babies skeletons, sectioned off from the main exhibition to give you the option to view them. There is something about seeing a tiny skeleton gently laid in a fragile wooden box that scrubs away the years that fall between us.
The more we know the harder it becomes, one woman hails from the Mediterranean, she is missing 4 teeth, she shows signs of dental disease. Another woman is aged 36-45 and had osteoarthritis in her spine, one tiny baby had bow legs and rickets.
There are stand out beautiful objects, the millefiori dish of mosaic glass is stunning. Originally the glass was blue, white and red, it must have taken hours and hours to make and been quite a sight, perhaps it was a gift or a wedding present. There is also remarkable lead coffin lid, excavated in Spitalfields in 1999 the decoration shows scallop shells, the shells symbolised the soul’s journey to the Isles of the Blessed and suggests a belief or hope in the afterlife.
Sometimes it is the simplest objects that hold you enthralled, a rare wooden coffin base, AD120-250 found by Holborn Viaduct preserved in the wet soil conditions there, still shows the imprint of the spine and ribs of it’s occupant.
Then I see a tiny glass phial and this becomes a very emotional visit for me. As I look from case to case I see reminders of my life as a volunteer. Object after object becomes markers to the last 6 years of my life. The tiny glass phial comes from Keston in Bromley near where I live. When I first came to the Museum of London to work on a Volunteer Inclusion Project I spent 10 weeks repacking objects from this site. When we came across this tiny glass flask we all crowded around in awe, it reminds me of my first visit to the archive, the first time I discovered the amazing treasures sitting in nondescript uniform cardboard boxes.
In the corner I exclaim out loud to see a very familiar object to me, a small lead casket also from Keston. When I first met this object I volunteered at Bromley Museum and it sat in their collection. I walked past it on display every time I volunteered. I remember visiting the site where it came from, the tombs are in someone’s back garden and only opened every 2 years. In 2014 on a beautiful sunny day I saw the casket returned to its home. It is a beautiful spot, it brought me even closer to those original inhabitants.
It also cuts me with such sadness that Bromley Museum is no more, but I am glad this object is still cared for and sits so proudly at the Museum of London to tell a story of Roman life and death.
When I look at the cremated remains I remember sitting alone in Bromley Museum’s store room, repacking the Keston collections that Bromley held, using collection care techniques taught to me by the Museum of London team. Lives in a cardboard box, graves removed, bones sifted and sorted, it brought me closer to the families that lived at Lower Warbank than I could ever imagine. I remember thinking no-one is every going to display these bits of old bone – how wrong I was.
In the stone pine cone and Roman stone faces from funerary monuments I see the Roman stone eagle I wrote a blog on. Fascinated how these sculptures often only survived because they were broken up and re-used as building material. I remember being show the eagle up close in the conservation lab before it went on display. Sworn to secrecy, my pictures and words embargoed till she sat in all her glory in the galleries.
The sarcophagus, the star attraction, well we have already met. One day working on collection care at the archive we were give a little preview of the Whitechapel ‘Fatberg’ and patiently sitting next to it, still strapped and broken awaiting conservation was the giant stone sarcophagus. It was a surreal 15 minutes contemplating double decker wrappers and archaeological discovery whilst trying to photograph flies emerging from a 21st century phenomenon. It really encapsulates the Museum of London for me, from old to new and absolutely everything in-between.
— Adam Corsini (@AdamCorsini) January 29, 2016
Finally in a jet pendant I see a day spent working on the award winning Archive Lottery. A random way of sharing archive collections via Twitter. I rushed from bay to bay, opening boxes and tweeting pictures to players across the globe. I opened a box, expecting to find another pot sherd and found a very similar jet pendant to the one on display here that completely took my breath away.
In this exhibition I see my days and hours, it highlights to me the strength, mission and purpose of museums, not simply custodianship but collaboration, interpretation, collection care, research and of course volunteering. It exemplifies the very best of what happens when a dirty scrap of pottery is found or a single glint of gold.
Roman Dead is not just about dead ancestors but 40 years of archaeological discovery and research stretching across London and beyond. It echoes not only the individuals laid in front of me, but the ghosts of archaeologists, conservators, curators and archive staff who held these things in their hands, gently looking in wonder, caring, cleaning and where necessary restoring in order to discover those stories that have been silent for so long.
Not many museums can do archaeological exhibitions like this, not just a wealth of objects but the research and expertise that teases out such remarkable stories. My lasting feeling is how deeply I feel connected to the past, to my city and to the Romans who came from all over the Empire to London where they ended their journeys.
As I leave there is a little pot with milk teeth in, last week my daughter’s tooth fell out and she wrote a letter to the tooth fairy, asking if she had any pets. It is these little things in the Roman Dead exhibition that make us stop and feel such a powerful connection to people we don’t know, people we have never met who lived in a completely different world.
At a time when we are challenged to think about who we are as a country and how we face the world it is even more vital to go to an exhibition like this and think about these connections and how we have always drawn people in for trade, culture and fun.
That all this is offered to you for free is quite simply why I love the Museum of London, so go make your own connections, honour the dead as they were honoured a thousand years ago and discover the lives we live in the shadows of and listen to their footsteps echoing into our here and now.
I hope you can forgive me for a long indulgent blog, but it is not just Roman lives I see here but my own too. Proud of everything I have done, still learning and loving my volunteering and very grateful for the opportunities I have had to meet so many of these objects and to play a small part in keeping them alive.
Roman Dead is a free exhibition on at the Museum of London, Docklands from 25 May – 28 October 2018 for more details please see the website – https://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/museum-london-docklands/whats-on/exhibitions/roman-dead
There are family events, talks and workshops to accompany the exhibition more details here – https://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/museum-london-docklands/whats-on/roman-dead-events
To find out more about the award winning Archive Lottery take a look at my blog – https://tinctureofmuseum.wordpress.com/2016/02/16/the-archive-lottery-opening-up-the-archives-to-a-new-generation-of-londoners/
To read more about the Keston site in Bromley take a look here – http://cka.moon-demon.co.uk/kestonpage.htm
More on the stone eagle here – https://tinctureofmuseum.wordpress.com/2013/11/01/aquila-has-landed-power-and-beauty-in-stone/
and more about the ‘Fatberg’….. here …. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-42986433