Spitalfields Roman cemetery, Tower Hamlets (SRP98)

The sarcophagus of 'Spitalfields woman' (© MoLAS)

Clients: Spitalfields Development Group

Author: Natasha Powers

The detailed analysis of c 200 Roman burials recovered from the excavations at Spitalfields Market began this year. Clusters of juvenile burials and possible family plots had been identified archaeologically and the osteological data will be examined in this light. This work also draws in small numbers of burials from adjacent, previously excavated sites.

Despite heavy truncation, it was possible to obtain some demographic data from cremations. No indications of pathological conditions were recoverable but it was possible to derive information on pyre temperature and funerary ritual. It appears that the cremation process had been carried out efficiently and evenly with the cremated bone separated from the remainder of the pyre debris, although charred seeds and plant remains were also recovered. Deliberate movement of the body on the burning pyre, collection of the hot bone, quenching, and post-depositional fragmentation may all have contributed to breakages in the cremated bone. As no in situ burning of the underlying surfaces or cremation structures was noted, the exact location of the original pyre sites could not be determined. Unburnt animal bone may represent the remains of ritual feasting or grave inclusions, and a cremated juvenile sheep vertebra is almost certainly associated with the funeral and cremation process.

The preservation of the inhumed remains was extremely variable. There are a considerable number of juveniles in the recorded assemblage. Examples of dental disease, deficiency diseases, infection and healed fractures have all been identified. The work now under way will also include a full analysis of the high-status female burial, the so-called ‘Spitalfields woman’, currently on display in the Museum of London.

This site report is extracted from MoLAS 2004: annual review

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