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

THEY HAD been queueing at the Museum of London since 9.30 in the morning. More than 1,000 came. They waited in near-silence to catch a glimpse of "Roman yuppie", as she's affectionately called.

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.

News
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
News
A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
people
Sport
Colombia's James Rodriguez celebrates one of his goals during the FIFA World Cup 2014 round of 16 match between Colombia and Uruguay at the Estadio do Maracana in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
sportColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
people
Sport
Antoine Griezmann has started two of France’s four games so far
sport
Life and Style
techYahoo Japan launches service to delete your files and email your relatives when you die
Life and Style
Child's play: letting young people roam outdoors directly contradicts the current climate
lifeHow much independence should children have?
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book
booksFind out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>
filmRobert Downey Jr named Hollywood's highest paid actor for second year running
Life and Style
Dale Bolinger arranged to meet the girl via a fetish website
life
Property
Sign here, please: Magna Carta Island
propertyYours for a cool £4m
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sustainability Manager

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

Graduate Sustainability Professional

Flexible, depending on experience: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: T...

Programme Director - Conduct Risk - London

£850 - £950 per day: Orgtel: Programme Director - Conduct Risk - Banking - £85...

Project Coordinator/Order Entry, SC Clear

£100 - £110 per day: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Hampshire

Day In a Page

Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

20 best days out for the summer holidays

From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

All the wood’s a stage

Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

Self-preservation society

Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor