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An artist's reconstruction of the burial of the high-status Spitalfields Roman woman. Source: MOLA

Spitalfields Roman Woman Reveals London’s Multicultural, Morbid Past


The somewhat morbid history of East London’s Spitalfields Market area is revealed after three decades of archaeological research, and the story of the enigmatic “Spitalfields Roman woman” unearthed in 1999 AD is finally becoming clearer. Since the 17th century AD London’s famous East End Spitalfields Market has been a hub for traders working from stalls serving London’s rapidly growing population with fresh fruits and vegetables. Now, after 30 years of archaeological research in Spitalfields, a team of over 150 history experts have uncovered what they describe as “an extraordinary range of finds spanning the Roman period to the late 19th century.” So far the project has produced five books and the latest volume has just been published. The latest book provides exceptional new insights into the so-called Spitalfields Roman woman.

The Spitalfields Roman woman’s lead coffin decorated with a scallop shell pattern. (MOLA)

The High-born Roman Woman And Her Clothes

The Spitalfields Roman woman was discovered in March 1999 AD, in an undisturbed lead sarcophagus decorated with a scallop shell pattern.

The most recent Spitalfields’ book details the clothing found on the Spitalfields Roman woman, giving clues to her origins. It is known this woman died in early adulthood, and isotope analysis determined that she had lived her childhood in southern Europe, but the latest research volume further details her social status in ancient London.

The Spitalfields Roman woman inside her lead coffin (MOLA)

The researchers undertook a microscopic analysis of the Roman woman’s clothing and found tiny fragments of silk, wool and gold thread. This, according to MOLA, suggests her outfit was made from “Chinese damask silk from Palmyra in Syria,” and it was decorated with rich gold thread tapestry and wool bands. Now, a much darker brown color, these wool bands were originally colored “Tyrian purple made from Murex shells.” All of these details suggest the Roman woman was of “high status in the upper ranks of Roman London society.”

A magnified view of the silk damask worn by the Spitalfields Roman woman. (MOLA)

A magnified view of the silk damask worn by the Spitalfields Roman woman. (MOLA)

The Latest Spitalfields Research Volume: Amazing Insights

According to the MOLA article “Never before has such a large area of London been opened up for investigation at once.” The results of this three-decade long study are called “unprecedented” and after 30 long years and five books the team are now showing how Spitalfields developed from Roman times to its current place in the global economic center of London.

The final instalment of the series of five research books was published this week and within its history loaded pages it details Spitalfields’ Augustinian priory of St Mary Spital, which serviced the needs of the capital’s sick and poor between 1197 AD and 1539 AD. The priory's dedicated pharmacy wing was found with its original hearths and smashed vessels that once stored remedies, and even the remains of a herb garden for cultivating medicinal herbs and plants was unearthed. However, before this priory was built a burial ground existed on this site, along with a two-story chapel where sermons were delivered.

Excavating the mass burials at St Mary Spital. (MOLA)

Excavating the mass burials at St Mary Spital. (MOLA)

Over the last 30 years the archaeologists have documented “10,500 skeletons dating from the 12th to 16th centuries” at this site, with 3000 cadavers dating to the 13th century AD. Explaining why such a high percentage of bodies were buried in this one century, ice core data suggests that in 1257/8 AD the Samalas volcano erupted in Indonesia. London’s Spital site is the first archaeological evidence of this eruption, which caused heavy rains, crop failure and famine across the globe.

Spitalfields’ Northern Cemetery Roman Burial Ground

The new book also describes Spitalfields when it was a Roman burial ground called “the Northern Cemetery”. And it provides information about the discoveries in the cemetery that have seen the number of Roman burials at this site expand from 319 to 493. The new research also explains how the earliest phase of burials at the Roman cemetery had “a sex ratio of 5:1 in male to female burials” and several explanations are offered to account for this. On the simplest level, it might be the case that females were buried elsewhere, but then again maybe only men migrated to London to work at that time. Or, as the researchers ask, are we are looking at evidence of “the deliberate killing of new-born female children?”

It was also discovered that part of this cemetery was reserved for children younger than 6 years of age, and the reason they were segregated is because in Roman classical beliefs “infants did not have souls.”

Five, long pipette-shaped glass phials were also discovered at the site. These phials once held perfumed oils for anointing the dead and wine for burial rituals. However, one of these was decorated with an elaborate zig-zag glass pattern and was found beside the late 4th-century AD sarcophagus of the famous Spitalfields Roman woman.

Top image: An artist's reconstruction of the burial of the high-status Spitalfields Roman woman. Source: MOLA

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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