Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Crazy Dead Romans!

If you go down to Canary Wharf today you’re in for a big surprise. At the Museum of London Docklands there is an exhibition called Roman Dead. In a dimly lit room, you will find over a dozen real (!) skeletons along with ashes of the dead. You will also see tombstones, inscriptions, funeral urns along with hundreds of grave goods (personal objects buried with the dead). It may sound gruesome, but it’s utterly fascinating. Some of the things in the Roman Dead Exhibition might make you agree with Obelix (from the Asterix graphic novels), when he taps his head and declares, ‘These Romans are crazy!’

I have been obsessed with the ancient world for over forty years. I have been writing books set in the Classical world for nearly twenty years. What first attracted me to study the ancient Greeks and Romans was how much like us they seemed from their literature. But the more I learn about them, the less I find I know. Yes, they are like us in many ways. But they are also unlike us in many other fascinating ways. Here are some of the objects that made me go ‘What on earth were the Romans doing with THAT?’

IRON RATTLES
Several rattles have been found in or near Roman burials, suggesting that they were shaken at funerals. Imagine shaking a rattle at a modern funeral! The Roman Dead exhibition even provides a hands-on shakeable rattle near three tubs containing different things you might have smelled at a funeral (bay leaves, frankincense and mastic). This type of rattle was called a sistrum and was especially popular in ceremonies for the Egyptian-Roman goddess Isis. We know that other instruments might have been played, and that mourners might have cried out the name of the deceased. One theory is that the noise kept away the ghosts and evil spirits that presumably haunted the graveyard. 

A TINY JET DIE
Die! 
No, I’m not telling you to go kill yourself. I’m giving you the singular of the word ‘dice’. A tiny die is one of many objects in the exhibition made of Whitby Jet. This rare substance was considered to have magical properties in Roman times. It looks like stone but in fact it is ancient fossilised wood from the Jurassic era. The Romans didn’t know that. But they did know that when you rub jet against wool or skin it attracts a static charge and can move hair and other small particles without touching theme. Romans didn’t know the scientific explanation. They believed jet to be a magical substance that could keep away evil. So maybe this was a good luck charm to keep away evil spirits as the soul of the dead person made the journey to the underworld. But why a die?

FACE POTS
This pot with a face on it looks jolly, doesn’t it? But it’s an urn to hold ashes of the dead! One theory is that pots like this represent a death-mask of the deceased. Another theory suggests that head pots could stand in for the heads of defeated enemies because some Romans and lots of Celts liked to chop off the heads of their enemies so they wouldn’t be able to have a happy afterlife! Then, to make sure the restless spirit didn’t haunt them, they would drop the head into a pit or stream. In another part of the museum you will see actual skulls of decapitated people, almost certainly either hated enemies or vile criminals. 

SKULL ON HER LAP
What on earth is going on here? We have the complete skeleton of a woman aged between 36 and 45 found deep underground at Hooper Street, Tower Hamlets. She was buried in a wooden coffin on a bed of chalk powder. Some time after she was buried, but before she turned to bone, someone dug her up again, removed the top of her skull and placed it over her pelvis! Then the coffin was reburied and rocks were piled on top. Among the rocks was a copper-alloy key. Was the key part of the reburial? Or accidentally dropped? Why was she buried on a bed of chalk? But most importantly, why was the top part of her skull placed over her pelvis? Maybe the newly positioned skull, rocks and key (along with a ceremony we can’t guess at) were designed to stop her spirit from haunting those still above earth, like those heads dropped in pits or water. 

MASSIVE SARCOPHAGUS
This sarcophagus (the word means flesh eater in Greek!) was found in Southwark (south London) only last year. It inspired the exhibition. It weighs two and a half tons and was brought a great distance. That must have cost a lot of sesterces! Why put a body inside such a heavy stone box? Roman magic expert Adam Parker believes that many things done to a body were to protect the living from its ghost but also perhaps to protect the body from being dug up and used for magic. We know from authors like Pliny the Younger and Apuleius that witches used body parts in their spells. Is that what’s going on here? Or was the lady buried in this sarcophagus a Christian who believed in a bodily resurrection and wanted to keep her corpse intact? We have no idea! 

COPPER KEY
Also from Southwark comes a small copper-alloy key which you can see in one of the cases. It was found near the left hip of a girl’s skeleton. She is called the Lant Street Teen because of the location of her grave and because her age at death was estimated to be fourteen. She was also buried with a wooden box, two small glass bottles and a folding knife. Because of the richness of her grave goods, samples of her bones were tested. Her DNA tells us she was of European ancestry and had blue eyes. But the isotopes in her teeth indicate that she lived in the southern Mediterranean – possibly North Africa – until she was nine, when she made the long journey to Londinium. Her skeleton is not in the Roman Dead exhibition because it is used in workshops for schoolchildren at the Museum of London’s Barbican site! 


In Roman times most keys looked more like big combs on a handle than modern keys. They fit into a pattern of holes to lift up a crossbeam on the inside of the door. Unlike the big iron key on the left, the Lant Street Teens copper-alloy key also has little teeth. But what did it open? Surely not a door; it’s far too delicate. Perhaps it opened the box that was found at the girl’s feet? But although the box had copper-alloy decoration, no lock was found. Was the key a magic charm of some sort, like the one found in the stones piled on the Hooper Street Woman’s grave? What was the key for?

IVORY KNIFE
Also belonging to the Lant Street Teen and found next to the copper-alloy key at her left hip was a folding knife with an iron blade and an ivory handle carved into the shape of a leopard. I have noticed that small folding knives like these are often found in the graves of women. In life, they would have been useful for personal grooming, eating and cloth- making. Several other folding knives found in Romano-British graves have fierce animals on them. Why? Why would a girl have a hunting hound or big cat on her knife handle? Perhaps these show the knife can ‘bite’. Or perhaps the animals on the handles symbolically protect their owner and keep away evil. Therefore a knife like this might have dual purpose of being a tool but also protective, making it a practical version of a lucky rabbit’s foot. But we don’t really have the faintest clue. 


The blue-eyed fourteen-year-old girl who owned these items fascinated me so much that I am writing a book about her called The Girl with the Ivory Knife. In this book an eccentric bazillionaire is also obsessed with her. His boffins have accidentally invented a time machine. Unfortunately, he can’t go back so he recruits a twelve-year-old London schoolboy to go back to third century Londinium (using Londons Mithraeum as a portal) in order to find her. In this book, I tried to imagine what Roman London would really have been like. 

I will be reading chapters from The Girl with the Ivory Knife at a FREE family event on Saturday 18 August 2018. And I will also be telling you lots more amazing things I have learned about these Crazy Dead Romans, including the answers to some of the questions I raised in this blog post. For more information and to get your name on the list for my free event, go HERE.

P.S. Thanks to MOLA, London’s Mithraeum and Juliette Harrisson for huge support (and some of the photos!) 

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