“Squat-Packed” London Finds a Roman Funerary Bed

I contributed a news piece about the UK’s first “flat-pack” medieval house to Ancient Origins in 2019. London-based archaeologists have now revealed that they have found a flat-packed Roman burial bed that is extraordinarily well-made and amazingly well maintained.

The Roman funeral bed, which is a “first” for the country, was found in an old Roman cemetery close to the Holborn Viaduct in central London. There are just three other Roman timber coffins known to exist in London, and the five oak coffins discovered with the Roman bed burial complete the collection.

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The foot of the burial bed are intricately carved. The artifact was made of “high-quality oak,” according to examination, and the joints were fastened with tiny wooden pegs. There is evidence that the bed was taken apart before being placed in the tomb of the twenty- or thirty-year-old Roman male.

The discovery of a Roman bed was entirely unexpected.

The Roman burial site is linked to the now-subterranean River Fleet, as reported by The Guardian. The graves were actually found to be remarkably well preserved because of this natural humidifier. The Roman bed was “carefully taken apart and stashed, like flat-packed furniture for the next life,” according to Michael Marshall, an antiques specialist at the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA), in a piece that appeared in The Guardian.

According to Marshall, the find site was roughly 6. meters (19.7 feet) below the current ground level and was situated beyond the Roman city’s fortifications. The undamaged Roman bed was found to be “a complete surprise,” even though the region had been investigated in the 1990s, according to the archaeologist, who also said he had “never seen anything like it before.”

Exposing the Symbolic Meaning of the Roman Burial Bed

Glass beads, a painted lamp, and a vial containing residue were found at the location of the Roman cemetery. These artifacts were all dated to between 43 and 80 AD, which is the earliest period of Roman occupation in Britain. Archaeologists had only read reports of beds being a part of Roman funeral processions prior to these recent discoveries. These relics can also be seen engraved on grave markers.

But as this discovery shows, Roman funeral beds were indeed used for burial. According to Marshall, this is “the first time” that concrete proof of these artifacts being used in funeral ceremonies has ever been discovered in Britain.

Marshall called the intricately carved vanquished Roman gladiator on the Roman bed “kind of a wonderful thing.” The MOLA archaeologist claims that the fallen gladiator’s iconography “makes sense in a funerary context.” According to him, it might be seen as a representation of a person who is near death but is resisting it. The nuances of grieving in the Roman society are thus revealed through an investigation of such burial iconography.

Roman Bed Burial Offers Proof of Elevated Status

No other grave items were discovered with the Roman bed burial, despite it being described as “one of the fancier pieces” of furniture from Roman Britain. However, the craftsmanship and caliber of the wood indicate that it was “almost certainly” the interment of a person of considerable status. The bed exhibit, according to Marshall, has “proper joinery, as opposed to something banged together.”

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In 47 AD, the Romans established London as Londinium and subsequently erected a bridge across the River Thames. Roads from the hamlet to other Roman outposts in Britain made it an important port. One of the most significant Roman legacies in Britain, according to a British Museum article, was the Roman road system, which “formed the skeleton of communications in Britain until the 18th century.”

Nonetheless, the majority of other population centers had pre-Roman, Celtic roots, and the Roman road network only linked a small number of Roman cities with “truly Roman foundations,” such as York and London. This emphasizes how significant London was to the Roman Empire as a whole. Up until 410 AD, London was the largest Roman city in Britain. All of this indicates that the person buried in a “flat-pack bed” belonged to the upper echelons of the Roman social structure.

Top image: A reconstruction of the Roman funerary bed and the bed itself during London excavations. [Source: MOLA]

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