Roman Sarcophagus Containing Two Skeletons Unearthed in Bath
Bath is the largest city in the county of Somerset and, as the name suggests, it is renowned for its Roman-built baths which were used until the end of Roman rule in Britain in the 5th century AD. The Romans dedicated the Aquae Sulis geo-thermal springs located in Bath to the goddess Sulis, identified as Minerva, with the construction of a temple in 60 to 70 AD. This historically rich area was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987. Most recently, the BBC reported that a Roman stone coffin with the remains of two people has been unearthed at a city center park in Bath.
Bath is best known for its Roman baths, but the city is littered with remains, such as the recent discovery of a Roman-era coffin in Bath. (Oliver Taylor / Adobe Stock)
Uncovering a Roman Coffin During Renovations in Bath
“This is a real career highlight,” stressed Kelly Madigan, a partner at L – P : Archaeology, the group responsible for carrying out the renovation, in an article published in BNESC Newsroom. “It isn’t often that you come across an in-situ stone coffin complete with occupants; especially on a watching brief!” she continued. “The excavation by our team of specialists was a huge success and needless to say, undertaken to internationally high standards of archaeological excavation and recording.”
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The exciting find occurred during restoration works in Sydney Gardens in Bath, a National Lottery Heritage project to revitalize the gardens located in the city famous for its Roman architecture. While excavating at Bathwick Cemetery the team unearthed a Roman sarcophagus, a type of stone coffin typically decorated with an inscription or symbol, and a cremation burial.
The casket and lid were made of Bath limestone. The first individual was found in a prone position, while the second was found at the feet of the first. They were buried with grave goods in the form of small red and blue beads, and a pot that potentially held a food offering or sacrifice for the afterlife.
What Makes the Bath Roman Coffin Discovery So Exciting?
“Having a human skeleton directly associated with a coffin is a rarity and to have this one associated with a probably votive offering and a nearby human cremation, allows a very rare glimpse into funerary practices in the region almost two millennia ago,” explained Madigan. The remains discovered in the Roman coffin in Bath are likely to offer lots of crucial information about the lives of the people who were users of the Roman bath, including health and DNA information, over 2,000 years ago.
“I’m beyond excited to find out the results of the assessment which is currently ongoing in our labs and hope that it in turn lends itself to an interesting analysis phase where we can delve deeper into just who the people we found in the coffin were, where they were from and their health and welfare,” added Madigan.
The grave was approximately 2 meters long (6.5 feet), 60 cm wide (1.9 ft) and 50 cm (1.6 ft) deep. Meanwhile, the nearby cremation burial recovered is the only recorded cremation burial discovered to date in Bathwick Cemetery. Initially a Roman wall was unearthed and as groundwork continued on the edge of the Bathwick Roman cemetery, the archaeologists discovered the Roman coffin.
Roman Bloodbath in Britain and the Vestiges of Paganism
The Romans established their presence in Britain during classical antiquity, between 43 AD and 410 AD, when it was regarded as a Roman province. In fact, it was invaded for the first time under Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars in 55 and 54 BC. His efforts began a bloodbath that lasted well over 40 years and resulted in the death of over 200,000 Britons, a massive number when you consider that the entire population would not have exceeded 2 million.
Eventually, a distinctive Romano-British culture developed, especially seen in agriculture, urban planning, industrial production and architecture. The Roman goddess Britannia became the female personification of Britain. Britain was one of the Roman territories where paganism had a hold, and there were certain continuities in rituals seen, particularly the votive offerings made at Bath, which were distinctive before and after the Roman conquest.
Roman Coffin Find in Bath Suggests a Pagan Burial
Interestingly, the current Roman coffin find at Bath suggests a pagan burial, owing to its north-facing aspect. What is also relevant to note is the Pagan Hills Roman Temple which is also located in Somerset. With its Romano-Celtic style, its remains can be found on a promontory overlooking the River Chew. It also faced east, which was perhaps an ode to Mercury, as it was constructed during the 3rd century AD, during Roman rule. The building would collapse in the 5 th century, but there is perhaps a link between the grave and this particular pagan practice.
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Sylvia Warman, Science Advisor for Historic England, has been providing advice about this rare find. “This is an amazing find - although several Roman stone coffins have been found around Bath in the past, none have been excavated and recorded by professional archaeologists using modern methods until today,” she explained on BNESC Newsroom. “This is a first for Bathwick and a really significant find for Roman Bath and the World Heritage Site. When completed, a scientific study of the remains will likely tell us much more about the lives, death and burial practices of the inhabitants of Roman Bath.”
By Rudra Bhushan