The lead coffin was found within a stone sarcophagus which was unearthed during the excavation of an old Roman cemetery in Spitalfields. It was opened by a team of archaeologists and revealed the almost perfectly preserved skeleton of woman in her early 20s. She died in the first half of the fourth century AD.
She was lying in a bed of silt, which archaeologists are hoping will have preserved other objects. They are now battling against time to find anything else before the silt dries out and turns to dust. Initial discoveries include leaves in the coffin, which may have been a burial wreath, and archaeologists are examining the silt for bits of hair, pollen or insects which would indicate the time of year she was buried. Over the next few weeks scientists will examine the coffin in minute detail for any clues about the woman's identity and way of life.
Taryn Nixon, the chief archaeologist, said the woman was certainly from a wealthy family. "She was part of the rich landed ruling classes that ran the country under Roman law," she said. "They made their money from agriculture and land rents from the people that farmed on the land."
Her left arm was folded across her chest - a sign of Christianity - but the scallop shells on the coffin and the presence of grave goods indicate pagan beliefs as well.
What is certain is that the woman would have lived in a large square villa surrounding a courtyard, probably in the city of Londinium. Roman law stated that human remains had to be buried outside the town. Their houses were richly decorated with mosaics and wall paintings and the furniture was mainly wooden or wicker. They would also have had window panes made from blown glass. The woman would have visited the public baths with her friends to socialise, but would have had her own private bath for washing. It is not known whether she was buried as a wife or a wealthy man's daughter but examination should reveal the cause of death, whether she was pregnant or died in childbirth.
Whatever secrets remain to be revealed, Ms Nixon said the discovery of the sarcophagus, which is the first to be found in Britain since 1877, would shed a ray of light onto the Roman way of life. "The way in which the living treat their dead tells us a great deal about them," she said. "It is an incredibly rare find because it has not been robbed as many other graves were." The woman's remains are on view at the Museum of London until Sunday 25 April.