Friday, July 13, 2012

1,600-year-old Roman coffin unearthed in London

Archaeologists discovered a rare Roman sarcophagus containing a headless skeleton at the site of London's historic St. Martin-in-the-Fields church, authorities said Friday.

The limestone coffin dates to about A.D. 410 and was 10 feet below the grounds of St. Martin-in-the-Fields near Central London's busy Trafalgar Square, outside the boundaries researchers had established for London's Roman city walls.

"The find has opened up an exciting new area of Roman London for study," said Taryn Nixon, director of the Museum of London Archaeology Service. "This gives us an extraordinary glimpse of parts of London we haven't seen before, particularly Roman London and Saxon London."

Excavators and archaeological teams discovered 24 medieval burial sites in the area above and around the Roman sarcophagus during work on the church grounds this summer. The discovery lies in view of the National Gallery art museum, Nelson's Column and the square, which is often congested with tourists.

The sarcophagus was made from a single piece of limestone from Oxfordshire or Northamptonshire, about 60 miles northwest of London, researchers said. The skeleton, headless and missing fingers, is a 5-foot-6-inch man who died in his 40s. Researchers speculated Victorian workmen building a sewer stumbled upon the sarcophagus and took the skull.

The site is about a mile west of the boundary of Roman London established by researchers, said Roman history expert Hedley Swain.