Removing the lid of Roman sarcophagus found in Borough Market, London

Ancient Roman Sarcophagus of Great Archaeological Value Discovered in Central London


A remarkably rare Roman sarcophagus has been discovered at an ancient burial site in the Borough area of London, England. The stone coffin, has been described by experts as “the find of a lifetime”, as only two other similar sarcophagi have been found in their original burial place.

1,600-Year- Old Coffin Discovered in Borough Market

According to the archaeologists who made the discovery, the 1,600-year-old coffin, which was found near Borough Market in Central London, is believed to contain the remains of a woman, possibly a mother as the bones of a baby were found nearby. Experts cannot be sure yet if the baby was buried with the coffin, but they appear to be certain that the coffin has been opened and looted, possibly by 18th century grave robbers in an area that was used by the Romans as a burial ground.  Gillian King, senior planner for archaeology at Southwark council, stated as BBC reports, “A large crack on the lid was probably the work of thieves. I hope they have left the things that were of small value to them but great value to us as archaeologists".

Archaeologists prepare to lift the lid at the site in Swan Street, Southwark

Archaeologists prepare to lift the lid at the site in Swan Street, Southwark (Lauren Hurley/PA)

Furthermore, Gillian King speculates that the grave owner was probably someone from the highest socioeconomic classes, “(the grave owner) was probably very wealthy and would have had a lot of social status to be honored with not just a sarcophagus, but one that was built into the walls of a mausoleum," she says as BBC reported. A metal detector was used to scan the coffin and it registered metal items but what these might be is unknown until further excavation due to it being filled with dirt.

The coffin was found to be filled with dirt, possibly after looting

The coffin was found to be filled with dirt, possibly after looting (Lauren Hurley/PA)

Exorbitant Roman Sarcophagus Found in Oxfordshire

Of course, this is not the first time a Roman sarcophagus has been discovered in England. As we reported in a previous Ancient Origins article, in March 2017, possibly the most luxurious and expensive ancient Roman sarcophagus in British history (worth up to 345,000 Euros) was found. The precious marble coffin was discovered on the grounds of Blenheim Palace, a monumental country house situated in Woodstock, Oxfordshire. The precious Roman artifact of immense archaeological and historical significance, served as a humble flowerpot for the past 100 years in the rock garden of what is also Sir Winston Churchill's birthplace in Oxfordshire.

Before that, the valuable sarcophagus was obtained and used during the 19th century as a garden ornament (a type of fountain) by the fifth Duke of Marlborough, who was famous for his impressive collection of antiquities. Palace officials decided to better examine the almost two meters (6’6ft) long artifact at the suggestion of an antiques expert, who was impressed by the object’s ornate carvings. Ironically, his visit was unrelated to the Roman marble coffin, which he noticed coincidentally.

A Roman sarcophagus that was once used as a garden ornament is now restored and displayed in Blenheim Palace.

A Roman sarcophagus that was once used as a garden ornament is now restored and displayed in Blenheim Palace. Source: Blenheim Palace

After conservators removed the front marble section, which is the genuine part, and carried out a detailed examination they were shocked to identify the basin as a white marble sarcophagus portraying lively and noisy Dionysian festivities, dating back to 300 AD. The sarcophagus is now positioned on public display in an underground room in Blenheim Palace.

The Archaeological Importance of the Recent Discovery

Despite not being as luxurious and expensive as the Roman sarcophagus discovered in Oxfordshire, the newly found coffin is of great archaeological value. Ms. King made sure to highlight its archaeological value in a statement as Southwark News reports, “In my long archaeological career I have excavated many hundreds of burials, but this is the first Roman sarcophagus I have ever discovered, still surviving in its original place of deposition. I have seen them in museums, but I think part of me believed that they had probably all been found by now.” And continues, “It really is a very special discovery.  Personally, I find it really fascinating to contemplate that this area – which we are now so familiar with – was once, during the Roman period, so completely different.  It really does make me feel very honored that my role at Southwark Council contributes to protecting amazing archaeological treasures like this, and our work means that we can ensure that the historic environment is championed and preserved for the enjoyment of us and future generations.”

This discovery was made at one of a number of sites that are being investigated in the Southwark area. The area is now known to contain several religious monuments as part of a ‘complex ritual landscape’ including 3 other Roman cemeteries. However, only two other sarcophagi have been found where they were initially buried.

Cllr Peter John, the Leader of Southwark Council, added to Ms. King’s statements, “In Southwark we take our duty as custodians of the borough’s rich, varied and important archaeological heritage very seriously. This Roman sarcophagus is the find of a lifetime and a credit to the council’s commitment to ensuring that the borough’s history is properly conserved,” Southwark News reports. The sarcophagus will soon be transferred to the Museum of London’s archive in Hackney, where experts will examine and date the bones and soil inside.

Top image: Removing the lid of Roman sarcophagus found in Borough Market, London (Lauren Hurley/PA)

By Theodoros Karasavvas

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