Coffin reveals secret life of a Roman yuppie
The queue to see the remains of a young woman who lived in London is part of a love affair with all things ancient
Sunday 18 April 1999
She was at the head of the queue, behind a purple cordon, submerged in inches of blackish sludge in the undignified glare of two studio- strength spotlights. Spectators craned to peer into the plastic-sheeted frame of her stone sarcophagus at ribs, thigh and shin bones, and a skull.
Joan Chalmers, 56, and her friend Barbara, from Winchester, had waited more than an hour. "It's incredible they can still discover things like this," said Joan, peering up at a large mirror above the coffin reflecting its contents. "You assume everything's been found, but obviously not." They shuffle towards the front for a closer peek.
Archaeologists in rubber gloves and white coats probe delicately among the few bones, spooning sediment into plastic bags for analysis.
As the historical facts emerge, public interest has intensified. The skeleton of the Roman woman was discovered at an excavation site in Spitalfields in March. Late last week, amid a flurry of publicity, her ornate coffin was finally opened. Inside were clues to her background. There were jet ornaments, a box for jewellery and the remains of leaves, possibly a garland for her head.
A lifestyle has been swiftly constructed around these slender remains. She was privileged and wealthy. One newspaper says she would have dined on peacock rissoles and sandal-footed around her centrally heated London villa. She would have enjoyed the theatre and lived in central London - W1, maybe.
You wonder if "Roman yuppie" had been, say, "Roman homeless person" or "Roman single mother", would there have been such a colourful elaboration of her leisure time? Ten minutes away at the Spitalfields site, where her remains were discovered, it seems churlish to ask.
Chris Thomas, archaeologist and project manager, sees the discovery of "Roman yuppie" merely as one piece of a much larger puzzle. "We really want to be able to fit everything together, to find a chronology between the mass medieval burials here and the Roman graves," he says. "At some places here the bodies have been thrown in hurriedly. At others there are more conventional graves."
Ten feet below us excavators have exposed rows of skeletons, encrusted in reddish earth. Everywhere, bones and odd bits of skull poke from the ground. Figures are bent over them, drawing their outlines and clearing away more rubble. Nearby there are a series of low red-brick walls, the remains of a medieval monastery and hospital, St Mary's Spital.
Chris, in mud-caked boots and a shiny, double-breasted suit and tie, looks exhausted. Smoking furiously, he admits he hasn't slept properly for days; since helping to prise open the coffin the night before, media interest has been intense. Behind him a CNN camera crew inch their way through the rubble and bricks for a closer shot. "People do seem to like skeletons," he says as an American presenter positions herself next to a row of grimacing skulls. "I think the gruesome aspect always excites them."
Certainly the public's appetite for archaeology seems insatiable. There is Channel 4's Time Team, an amateur archaeology show that enjoys an audience of some 3.6 million. The book of the series is number three in the Sunday Times bestseller list. Yesterday BBC2 launched a new two- hour History Zone, showing its programmes One Foot in the Past and Meet the Ancestors. The reality is a much grittier proposition, according to Chiz Harward, area supervisor at Spitalfields.
"Those programmes are crap if you're an archaeologist," he says. "It's f***ing hard work. It's emotionally and physically gruelling. There's the pressure of deadlines - developers only give you a certain time to excavate. You've got an extremely complicated sequence of events and you have to work out what's been going on."
Those in the daily grind of crouching for hours scraping a small patch of dirt, seem more sanguine. "It's difficult to explain how exciting it is to know you're the first person to witness something - even an ancient rubbish pit," says Alison Telfer, busily sketching a medieval brick wall.
Fellow archaeologist Arthur Taylor-Nottingham crouches over skeletons, scraping at the dirt. "You can't allow yourself to get caught up in the idea that they're all dead bodies," he says cheerfully. "They all look the same after a bit. It's really rather academic."
Chris Thomas' mobile rings. "Good God," he says excitedly. "How big did you say?" His eyes gleam at us "It's the Museum of London," he says. "They've found a glass vessel a foot long in the coffin. I've got to get over there and have a look." And he strides away through the rubble.
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