Archaeologists opened a 1,700-year-old coffin lid today (15th August 2008) and found the decayed remains of a middle-aged person who lived during the end of the Roman occupation of Britain.
The find in Newcastle city centre of two sandstone sarcophagi believed to belong to the same family was one of the most important in the area for a century.
The coffins were buried side by side and were thought to be powerful people from the adjacent walled fort of Pons Aelius, whose West Gate was just yards away, overlooking a section of the River Tyne close to where the city’‘s railway station stands.
Richard Annis, from Durham University, said the contents of the coffin had not lasted well since the 4th Century. The coffin lid was not sealed shut and over the intervening 1,700 years, water has seeped in and eroded the contents. But teeth were still visible, as the enamel is strongly resistant to erosion, and as they were relatively well-preserved, they were thought to be from a middle-aged person. Mr Annis said: “That was a thrilling moment. “The more burials you do, the more you get used to the mechanics of dealing with the remains, but there is still a human context to your reaction. “We are looking at the bones of an individual and you can see them as a whole person.” It was not easy for the team on the dig to lift the half-tonne lid from the coffin in the middle of the muddy site, which was being investigated before it was turned into a modern office block. When the other coffin was opened previously it contained the poorly-preserved skeleton of a child, aged around six years old, which was submerged in water and sludge. The head of the child appeared to have been removed and placed elsewhere in the coffin, which was an unusual but not unknown practice in Roman times. It is possible the burial included the remains of an older person in the same coffin. In 1903 two sarcophagi were found nearby, so archaeologists were confident there was once a cemetery in the area. Other discoveries at the site, on Forth Street, include cremation urns, providing evidence of other Roman burials on site; a cobbled Roman road which experts believe may have been part of the old main road from the South of England to the North; a Roman well and a Medieval well; the remains of the foundations of Roman shops and workers’‘ homes, along with the remains of flint tools from Stone Age hunter-gatherers. The site has been home to numerous developments since the Middle Stone Age. It was most recently home to warehouses and offices of the British Electrical and Manufacturing Company and still hosts a disused 19th century Presbyterian Church, which is a listed building. Mr Annis added: “These sarcophagi would have been a prominent feature of the landscape, as they were carefully placed to be viewed, being close to the road and, at the time, raised above the ground. “They would certainly have had to belong to a wealthy family of a high status in the community, perhaps at Fort Commander level or at senior level in the Roman army. “Very few people could have afforded to bury their child in such a grand fashion.” The sarcophagi, about 70cm wide and 180cm long, have walls around 10cm thick and weigh up to half a tonne each. They are both carved out of a single piece of sandstone. Each lid was fixed in place with iron pegs sealed with molten lead. After analysis by the Durham University team, all the finds from the site will eventually go to the new Great North Museum in Newcastle, where the sarcophagi will be preserved for the public to see. David Heslop, Tyne and Wear County Archaeologist, added: “For the first time, we are starting to understand the layout of the civilian settlement that provided services to the garrison of the fort, and we can catch a glimpse of the Roman way of life, and death, on the northern frontier of the Empire.”