Archaeologists in London have uncovered a 2,000-year-old Roman cemetery, complete with five oak coffins and an exceptionally well-preserved funerary bed. This discovery marks the first time a complete funerary bed has been found in Britain.
The excavation site, near Holborn Viaduct, situated almost 20 feet below street level, was described as the final resting place of some of Roman London’s earliest residents, according to a statement by the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA).
The bed, crafted from high-quality oak with carved feet and joints fixed with small wooden pegs, was carefully dismantled before being placed in the grave, suggesting it may have been used to carry the deceased to the burial site and intended as a grave good for the afterlife.
Heather Knight, a senior archaeologist at MOLA, highlighted the surprise at the levels of preservation encountered during the excavation. The finds, including the bed and coffins, were remarkably well-preserved due to burial in the damp mud of the River Fleet, which served as a protective medium for these artifacts.
The cemetery’s location, just west of the Roman city walls and next to the major Roman road Watling Street, aligns with known Roman burial practices. Knight noted, “We know the Romans buried their dead alongside roads, outside of urban centers.” However, the extensive preservation and the discovery of a complete funerary bed have surpassed the archaeologists’ expectations.
The funerary bed, described as “unparalleled” and an “incredibly rare” piece of furniture, was found alongside various personal effects, including beads, a glass vial, and a decorated lamp, dating to the very early Roman Britain period (CE 48 to 80). The lamp, adorned with a defeated gladiator design, adds a symbolic aspect to the findings, suggesting subtle choices in how people mourned their dead in Roman times.
Michael Marshall, an artifacts specialist with MOLA, said: “It’s one of the fancier pieces of furniture that’s ever been recovered from Roman Britain.” The well-preserved nature of the wooden artifacts, including the coffins and bed, provides an unprecedented opportunity for researchers to study ancient joinery and craftsmanship.
Archaeologists also uncovered evidence of a tanning workshop from the 1200s, indicated by timber-lined wells and chalk floors. Younger artifacts, such as a 15th- or 16th-century water pipe, possibly used for pumping water on a ship, and a 16th-century cemetery, further showcase the site’s historical significance.
Excavations at the site are ongoing, with archaeologists from MOLA continuing their work throughout the year before the construction of a luxury office building.