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Roman Britain

London's Last Roman

by Trevor Timpson, 4 June 2007

Part 2: Bridging London's lost centuries

Two very different finds, dug up close to each other alongside Trafalgar Square, shone new light on the greatest puzzle of London archaeology - the two 'silent' centuries following Roman rule.

That the skeleton of 'London's Last Roman' - or anything ancient and unknown - can be discovered in 2006 in Trafalgar Square is remarkable. But when it comes to yielding secrets, the square's church, St Martin-in-the-Fields, has a long record.

When the present church was being built in the eighteenth century a body was found in a reused Roman stone coffin. And in the thirteen century the authorities had to step in after treasure hunters ransacked the then church in search of 'a gold hoard'. So in 2006 it was assumed that the man in a limestone coffin - dug up in the space between Victorian burial vaults and the church's boundary - was also a later burial in a reused Roman sarcophagus. His head had been lost, probably in the nineteenth century.

Then the result of the radio carbon dating came back from the lab in Florida to which a small bone had been sent. With seventy percent certainty, it said, the 'Last Roman' had died some time between AD 390 and 430. To enthusiasts, the midpoint stood out - 410, the year in which the hard-pressed Roman empire abandoned all claims to Britain. It was not a later burial at all.

Suddenly, says Francis Grew, senior curator at the Museum of London, there was 'huge interest' in the find. 'We can say with some confidence that this is the latest scientifically-dated burial from Roman London,' he said.

Just metres away from where the coffin was discovered was something else which, if dug up in the garden, would probably be thrown away: a squashed, grey pot, hand-moulded, not made on a wheel, and with a crude decoration of lines and punch-marks.

'I assembled all the finds, laid out on a table for the first time,' says Mr Grew, 'and I got specialists from different fields and said: "Tell me what you think of all this"."' He expected the Anglo-Saxon experts to show interest in the later Saxon jewellery which had been found on the site.

Instead they went straight for the pot which was lying in fragments, grey and nondescript but massively important. A type of pottery which was used by the earliest Saxon immigrants from northern Germany, it is dated to about AD 500, the earliest near-complete Saxon pot to have been discovered in Central London.

Two hundred-year gap

This made the St Martin's dig hugely significant, shining a new light on the mystery of London's lost centuries. Plenty happened in London in the four hundred and fifty years following the end of Roman rule in Britain in 410. It became the seat of an English bishopric. Bede in the 730s called it 'a mart of many nations'.

So why could archaeologists find almost no evidence to show that London was inhabited at that time? It was not until the 1980s that they realised they had been looking in the wrong place.

The Anglo-Saxon London, Lundenwic, was not on the site of Roman London - what is now the City - but in the West End, around Aldwych, the Strand, and Trafalgar Square. Then objects and traces of buildings which had already been found in these places began to make sense.

A TWO PART FEATURE:
Part 1: Roman's Remains
Part 2: Lost Centuries

But still there was a two hundred-year gap. Even Lundenwic remains could not be dated to before the seventh century. Now, with the latest Roman burial and the earliest Saxon pot found within metres of each other, the gap has narrowed to just ninety years, and has set everyone thinking about what it means for the transition from Roman to English London and the significance of the St Martin's site.

The site was surely a prominent place in ancient times, raised up above the Thames with views back to the ancient walls of Londinium and down towards what is now Whitehall and Westminster. Its reputation as a place in which treasure could be found was still notorious in the thirteen century.

But what did it mean to the two sets of people - the ones who buried the 'last Roman' and the ones who owned the grey pot - who are now almost in sight of each other in the archaeological record?

Moving

One thing Mr Grew is sure of is that enough remained of the cemetery in which the 'Last Roman' lay as well as other graves now lost, to make it clear that this was a very special place.

'Anyone coming there in AD 500 would have been aware of the notable remains, perhaps a brick mausoleum crumbling away,' he says. A Roman brick-kiln has also been found nearby.

  Anyone coming there in 500 would have been aware of the notable remains

Francis Grew
Museum of London
 

And if there was a religious, sacred site, could it have been Christian? When the 'Last Roman' died, Christianity had been officially favoured within the Roman empire for decades and yet there are few Christian remains from Roman Britain and no identifiable churches in Roman London, albeit that Christianity always seems to have had a weaker hold in Britain than on the Continent during the Roman empire period.

For the vicar of St Martin's, Nicholas Holtam, the discovery of the burial of the 'Last Roman' is a moving experience. The man was a contemporary of St Martin himself, Nicholas Holtam pointed out. And he believed there were signs that it may well have been a Christian burial.

He suggested that it raised the possibility of St Martin's (which was first recorded in the thirteenth century) having been a sacred site for much longer than was previously thought. He recognised that the evidence must be looked at scientifically, but added: 'I'd love it to be proven that this was a Christian site dating back to 410.'

 

 

     
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