Durham University archaeologists have discovered two rare Roman stone sarcophagi.
The 1800-year-old sandstone coffins were uncovered at a dig on the site of former chapel and office buildings in Newcastle upon Tyne. They are the first such find – and arguably the most impressive – in the area for more than 100 years.
They are thought to have been used to bury members of a rich and powerful family from the adjacent, walled fort of Pons Aelius, whose West Gate would have been sited just yards away. Hadrian’s Wall would have run to the north of the fort.
The lid of one sarcophagus was lifted by Durham University experts on August 15, to discover what it holds inside.
The other sarcophagus has already been opened and removed from the site for safekeeping. This was found to contain 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.
The tombs, the most archaeologically significant find at the dig, were discovered by a team from Archaeological Services Durham University. In 1903, two sarcophagi were found at the former Turnbull Warehouse site, in Newcastle upon Tyne, which is now home to a block of luxury flats.
The Durham University team was hired by a development company which aims to build a modern office block on the site once its archaeological riches have been preserved for future generations.
Other discoveries at the site, on Forth Street, Newcastle upon Tyne, 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.
Richard Annis, project manager with Archaeological Services, Durham University, commented on the significance of the finding: “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 180 cm long, have walls around 10 cm 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 of 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.
In Roman times, it was unlawful to bury bodies inside settlements. Cemeteries were laid out at the roadside, near the gates of forts and towns.
Mr Annis added: “It is very likely that a burial ceremony would have been held at the tombs, perhaps attended by many people. We know that some families hired professional mourners, who would weep and wail and add to the atmosphere of the burial.”
David Heslop, Tyne and Wear County Archaeologist, said: "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."
Timeline of the Forth Street site:
- 6,000 years ago: Nomadic hunter gatherers of the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) pass through, leaving remains of flint tools behind them.
- 1,880 years ago: Hadrian’s Wall is built north of the site
- 1,840 years ago: the Roman fort of Pons Aelius is built just east of the excavation site, which becomes a settlement, and later is used as a cemetery
- 1,600 years ago: Romans leave the area with the collapse of their empire.
- 900 years ago: Medieval settlements on the site. A Carmelite Friary is built on what is now Forth Street.
- 500 years ago: A house is built from the wreckage of the Friary, following Henry VIII’s Reformation.
- 300 years ago: Unitarians build a large chapel on the site
- 180 years ago: Presbyterians build a chapel adjacent to the Unitarian chapel
- 90 years ago: British Electrical and Manufacturing Company occupy warehouses and office space on the site till the early 21st Century.
- Present day: the Presbyterian chapel will be incorporated into the new building, and the other remains of the site’s history will be researched and archived for the future.
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