Coffin reveals secret life of a Roman yuppie - News - The Independent

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
Paper trail: the wedding photograph found in the rubble after 9/11 – it took Elizabeth Keefe 13 years to find the people in it
newsWho are the people in this photo? It took Elizabeth Stringer Keefe 13 years to find out
Arts and Entertainment
Evil eye: Douglas Adams in 'mad genius' pose
booksNew biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Sport
FootballFull debuts don't come much more stylish than those on show here
News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Kim Kardashian drawn backlash over her sexy swimsuit selfie, called 'disgusting' and 'nasty'
fashionCritics say magazine only pays attention to fashion trends among rich, white women
Arts and Entertainment
TVShows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Arts and Entertainment
Hit the roof: hot-tub cinema east London
architectureFrom pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
Travel
travel
News
The ecological reconstruction of Ikrandraco avatar is shown in this illustration courtesy of Chuang Zhao. Scientists on September 11, 2014 announced the discovery of fossils in China of a type of flying reptile called a pterosaur that lived 120 millions years ago and so closely resembled those creatures from the 2009 film, Avatar that they named it after them.
SCIENCE
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Matisse: The Cut-Outs exhibition attracted 562,000 visitors to the Tate Modern from April to September
art
Life and Style
Models walk the runway at the Tom Ford show during London Fashion Week Spring Summer 2015
fashionLondon Fashion Week 2014
News
Kenny G
news
News
peopleThe black actress has claimed police mistook her for a prostitute when she kissed her white husband
Life and Style
techIndian model comes with cricket scores baked in
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

SEN Teaching Assistant

£45 - £55 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Teaching Assistants urgently r...

Primary Teacher

£85 - £135 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: The Job:We are looking for a ...

Primary Teacher

£85 - £135 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Randstad Education is the UK ...

KS1 Teacher

£80 - £100 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Key stage 1 Teacher - Gloucest...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week