Roman Burials in Southwark


Excavations at 52–56 Lant Street and 56 Southwark Bridge Road

Victoria Ridgeway, Kathelen Leary and Berni Sudds, 2013.

PCA monograph 17

ISBN 978-0992667207


The extent of the Romano-British cemetery to the south of Londinium has only recently begun to be recognised. The excavations reported on in this publication took place on two sites in the London Borough of Southwark during 2003. Together they revealed over a hundred inhumations, along with two cremation burials, of second to late fourth or early fifth-century date. Both the site at Lant Street and that at Southwark Bridge Road produced a range of artefactual material, predominantly pottery and glass vessels, metal jewellery and beads, largely as gravegoods. A variety of burial practices was observed, including prone burials and bodies laid to rest on chalk. A grave at Lant Street contained the multiple burial of a young male, child and infant interred with a range of pottery vessels. Amongst the more richly-provisioned inhumations was that of an adolescent buried with an ivory-handled knife in the form of a leopard and a key; fittings of carved bone and copper alloy found by the foot of this burial had probably once adorned a wooden casket or box.
This publication presents the results of the excavations, including detailed artefactual reports and osteological analyses, with a synthesised catalogue of data for each burial. A collaborative program of isotopic analysis was undertaken to help identify the possible geographic origins and dietary habits of the inhabitants. The results, presented here, show that many of those individuals tested may have spent their childhood close to the Mediterranean, whilst analysis of carbon and nitrogen isotopes suggests the population avoided the consumption of fish. This monograph presents only a fraction of a rapidly expanding body of data relating to burial across the suburb and is the first from the London region to include an extensive study of diet and migration through isotopic analysis.
  1. Michael Marshall (LAMAS)

    Roman burials in Southwark presents the results of excavations in 2003–4 by Pre-Construct Archaeology at 56 Southwark Bridge Road on the ‘southern island’ of Roman Southwark, revealing 18 inhumations, and by AOC Archaeology Group at 52–56 Lant Street on the ‘mainland’ southern bank of the Thames, revealing 84 inhumations and two cremations. Early activity is limited and the 2nd century (period 3) sees the first definite evidence for burial at Lant Street with contemporary evidence from Southwark Bridge Road limited to some disarticulated human bone. The phasing suggests a 3rd century hiatus in activity (period 4) followed by major phases of burial in the 4th century (period 5). However, the authors acknowledge that this hiatus may be illusory (p16) and, as some of the grave goods seem to predate the 4th century, period 5 should perhaps have been sub-divided or assigned a broader Late Roman date. The clear descriptions of the dating and stratigraphy, however, will allow readers to make up their own mind. Finally, a small scatter of Early Anglo-Saxon pottery (period 6) provides some limited but nonetheless important evidence for later activity. The specialist reports (chs 4–6) contain a wealth of information. Particular highlights include evidence for the ritual deposition of dogs; a ceramic tettina closely associated with a baby; four identical but otherwise unparalleled Alice Holt / Farnham ware flasks found across several graves and two identical gold earrings, probably a pair, again found across several burials. The authors wonder whether these identical finds are stock objects, made especially for funerals, or sets parcelled out between individuals who had some personal relationship in life (p35–6). A wonderful composite object (copper-alloy pendant, studs and rings and frit melon beads) found with a decapitated dog burial is interpreted as a collar (p13 and 54). The osteological sections (chs 5 and 6) are detailed and interesting, particularly in terms of the slight female bias proposed at Lant Street. This contrasts with the male biases reported in many other Romano-British cemetery populations, including London’s ‘Eastern’ and ‘Northern’ cemeteries. Given this, formal statistical testing of this demographic difference and other patterns might have been worthwhile. Aging and sexing skeletons is inevitably a matter of interpretation but the inclusion of data here, occasionally contradictory, on single individuals from multiple observers (Kathelen Leary and Rebecca Redfern) is problematic as readers have no way to judge which is more valid. In general Redfern’s identifications seem to be favoured (p124) but it is unclear whether the data in Leary’s reports favour her own identifications and whether Redfern re-examined all the burials or only those for which the isotopic/ancestry study was undertaken.
    The section on isotopes and ancestry is an important contribution to the field and it is good to see it included in a monograph arising from developer funded work. It adds to the debate surrounding the significance of migration in the Roman Empire as a whole (see Eckardt 2010) and begins to situate London within this wider context. A number of individuals from the cemetery are identified as having spent their childhood in warmer climes. A discussion of the methods used to assign ancestry would have been useful for readers without a background in osteology but the results usefully complement the isotopic work identifying probable examples of both European and African ancestry.
    The burial catalogue contains valuable information but suffers from the lack of a standardised approach to the cataloguing, illustration and cross referencing of associated finds which are variably catalogued within the burial text (BL16; p80); alongside it (BL43; p86) or in the specialist reports with a different numbered sequence (BL15). Some grave goods mentioned but not illustrated or described in detail anywhere in the volume. The grave goods ought to have been catalogued and illustrated consistently and in toto with a single system of cross referencing.
    Amongst the most important discoveries is the inhumation burial of an adolescent at Lant Street BL15 (p79 and 113–14) found with a clasp knife handle in the shape of a leopard, a key, the remains of a box with metal and bone fittings and some unusual glass vessels. The isotopic evidence suggests this individual came from a Mediterranean climate and the skeletal evidence suggests a probable African ancestry. However, the ‘North African associations of the grave goods buried with BL15, particularly the leopard knife’ are somewhat overplayed in places. While it is worth speculating whether this object made of (presumably African) ivory depicting a (sometimes African) leopard may have been particularly meaningful because of the deceased’s background, both ivory and big cat imagery are found widely in the Roman Empire and an equally reasonable, not necessarily exclusive, suggestion by the authors is that this object may have had Bacchic significance (p114). The skeletal evidence may suggest that the deceased had ‘a childhood in North Africa’ but to decide that this was ‘most likely in Carthage’ (p70) based on a single parallel for the knife from that area, is going too far.
    The concluding chapter provides good thematic summaries of the site with care taken to place the evidence against the wider background of Roman Southwark and contextualise it through comparison with other cemeteries. The earlier Lant Street burials are contrasted, in terms of their peripheral location and dense intercutting burials without coffins, with the clearly demarcated roadside plots and mausoleums, probably belonging to wealthy families, found at Great Dover Street (Mackinder 2000) while the later burials are compared in detail with London’s Eastern Cemetery (Barber and Bowsher 2000).
    Some editorial problems mean this book is not always easy to use and nuanced discussion is sometimes marred by references that cannot easily be followed up in the bibliography e.g. Melikian 2002 (cited throughout the book) is not listed in alphabetical order, Seeley and Wardle 2009 (p108) is missing or incorrectly cited and Johns 1996, Henig 1998, Riu 1999, Clarke and Fulford 2002 and March 1999 (all p114) are missing. Nevertheless, there is also a lot to recommend this volume including the isotopic work, exciting archaeology and some good ideas from the authors; all with a very reasonable price tag. In the closing section the authors note that the ‘southern cemetery’ is due for a major review. In fact the same can be said for burial in London as a whole and, at a time when we are still eagerly awaiting reports on a number of major cemetery excavations, all the excavators and authors involved in the Roman Burials in Southwark project are to be thanked for adding two important pieces to this larger puzzle.

Only logged in customers who have purchased this product may leave a review.