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REVEALED: The first finds from the Roman coffin

By Tamworth Herald  |  Posted: November 13, 2013

By Helen Machin

Roman bangles.

Roman bangles.

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THIS is the first picture of the finds made so far as archaeologists carefully sift through the silt inside the Roman child’s coffin which was found in Witherley and was opened yesterday.

Scientists have found two ancient bangles - one delicately carved from jet and the other made of shale - in the 1,700-year-old coffin.

They are continuing to sift through the silt, and hope to find more objects as well as bones.

This week we spoke to Roman historian Jim Beestone, a recent graduate of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, who lives in Tamworth, about what might be discovered by the scientists and what we might learn.

Jim said: “The opening of the coffin is a tremendous opportunity for archaeologists to examine an extremely rare find, and the discovery of artefacts buried deep in the silt is extremely exciting for historians.

“As it is likely that the remains will have suffered significant decay, archaeologists will have been conducting tests of the soil, but they will also be on the look-out for any further sign of ‘grave goods’ like the jet and shale bangles already found. These grave goods were items from the dead person’s life that they were buried with. These could take all sorts of forms, depending on the wealth of the family and the age and status of the deceased.

“In the case of a child, it may well be that they were buried with their favourite toys, family heirlooms or other keepsakes. We might normally expect these things to be made of wood or bone, but we know from the material of the coffin lining that the child's family were wealthy, and so the discovery of semi-precious materials such as jet is not surprising.

“The presence of grave goods does, however, cast some doubt over the religion of the child, as they were normally associated with pagan burials.

“The burial was originally thought to be Christian, as Christians were (and still are) buried east-to-west, but some contemporary Romans, including the Emperor and his family, worshipped the sun-god ‘Sol Invictus’, and may have therefore been buried to face the rising sun. The most common and telling sign of a pagan burial will be the nature of the coin placed in the mouth of the deceased. Traditionally, the placing of a coin in the mouth originated from Greco-Roman mythology, and was designed to allow the dead to pay the ferry-man who would carry them over the River Styx and into the Underworld.

“This tradition continued into early Christianity, with the difference that in Christian burials, the coin would often be decorated with the Christian chi-rho symbol on the reverse.

“If there is a coin, this may also give us a more accurate date for the burial, as coins were minted with the face and symbol of the reigning Emperor on them, and we might be able to match the coin with a more specific date.”

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