How we solved the mystery of the Roman ‘princess’

Julian Richards returns to one of the most intriguing cases featured over a decade ago in the BBC’s Meet the Ancestors archaeology series, and discovers that this ancestor has a more remarkable background than he imagined.

This article was first published in the April 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine

Researchers piece together the story of the woman found in Spitalfields.

Between 1998 and 2004 I presented the BBC Two series Meet the Ancestors. We followed the excavation of a wide range of ancient human burials to see what stories they could tell. As an experienced archaeologist I was well aware that we don’t stop learning about the past when the dig finishes. In fact, that’s when the learning usually starts. 

At the time, our production schedule usually allowed us a few months to carry out the sort of studies that would help bring the past to life. But it was never long enough. That’s why we decided to make Stories from the Dark Earth: Meet the Ancestors – Revisited. Returning to sites that we first examined over a decade ago has proved fascinating – for it has revealed how new discoveries and cutting-edge science have changed our understanding not only of individual people but of entire eras.

One of the most absorbing of those original discoveries was the so-called ‘Roman princess’ who emerged from an excavation at Spitalfields in the east end of London in 1999. The Museum of London archaeology team was digging a huge medieval cemetery that had grown up around the monastic hospital that gave its name to this part of London. But as well as thousands of medieval burials there were also some of Roman date.

 

Unexpected burial

Strict Roman laws dictated that no burials could take place within the bounds of a settlement so, given that this site lay just outside the north gate of the Roman city of Londinium, it was an entirely logical place for a cemetery. What was completely unexpected though was a massive stone sarcophagus, with its cover still in place. Inside was a lead coffin, its lid cast with an intricate pattern of scallop shells and rope. Beautiful objects of black jet and glass had been placed next to the sarcophagus and inside it. One particularly amazing survival was a long and incredibly fragile glass flask that was sandwiched between stone and lead. 

These magnificent objects were deposited in the earth in honour of a woman whose bones reclined in a thin layer of damp silt. The silt had itself preserved bay leaves and fragments of what had once been a rich garment of silk, embroidered with gold thread. This woman was clearly someone of wealth and power.

But who was she, what were her beliefs and where did she come from? At the time of her discovery we knew, from the style of the objects she was buried with, that she had died around AD 350. There were suggestions, based on the scallop shell motifs that decorated her coffin lid, that she might have been a Christian. After all, under Constantine, Rome’s first Christian emperor, there was tolerance of all religions after AD 313 and, from this time, being a Christian (if only outwardly) was useful if you moved in the upper echelons of Roman society.

A reconstructed head cast from the skull of the 'Roman princess'. (Credit: Museum of London)

 

Mysterious teeth

In 1999 Janet Montgomery, then a PhD student at Bradford University, analysed the isotopes from the lead that made up the woman’s coffin and concluded that it came from the great mines of the Mendips. Unfortunately Montgomery was unable to match a location to the lead isotopes from the woman’s teeth – though they did reveal that she wasn’t born in this country. The suggestion at the time was that our ‘princess’ may have come from France or Spain. When we reconstructed her face, we gave her a Mediterranean look. 

Today the woman’s bones reside in a storeroom at the Museum of London and, in one of the Roman galleries, our facial reconstruction looks down on a display of her cleaned and conserved possessions. But we now see these objects in a rather different light, according to Angela Wardle, the museum’s Roman finds expert.

The scallop shells that decorate the lid of the lead coffin are no longer regarded as obvious symbols of Christian belief, although Christians did later adopt this motif. But if this woman was a pagan, did any of her possessions provide clues about where her beliefs lay? Wardle thinks that our ‘princess’ may have belonged to one of a range of eastern mystery cults (of which Christianity was one) that gained favour in the mid-fourth century AD. But which one? 

The answer may lie in one of the glass vessels discovered in the coffin – an example of which has been found in France, buried full of wine. It’s little surprise then that Wardle believes that the Spitalfields ‘princess’ may have been linked to the cult of Bacchus, the god of the grape harvest, of winemaking and of wine itself. This was, after all, the time that London’s celebrated Temple of Mithras – first unearthed at Walbrook in 1954 – was rededicated to Bacchus.

Queues form in Cannon Street, London, to see the Roman temple of Mithras, 24 September 1954. (Credit: Getty Images)

But she was still no closer to determining where the woman came from – until she received a chance phone call from a student in America who was working on burials from ancient Rome. Janet offered to help the student and, when the results from the analysis of the bones’ lead contents came in, she found that at last she had a match for our Spitalfields ‘princess’. She was from Rome and is to date the only person in Roman Britain who can be proved to have been born in the imperial city. 

So, a combination of archaeology and science have brought us closer to an understanding of this woman’s life. Possessions that are taken to the grave can hint at beliefs but, as this case quite clearly shows, are open to re-interpretation. Science now paints a picture of someone who was born in Rome and who made a journey to a part of the empire that was at this time undergoing changes both in politics and in belief. 

London in the second half of the fourth century was seeing a decline in population and yet this woman, presumably of high rank and wealthy, moved there from the very heart of the Roman empire. And did she bring her beliefs with her, to a city which at this time had its first Christian bishop but which was also home to many other gods, both old and new? Some questions are perhaps destined to remain unanswered but, as an archaeologist, it is intriguing to think what new science and new ideas might reveal in the next decade.  

Julian Richards is an archaeologist, author and the presenter of Meet the Ancestors and Blood of the Vikings.

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