This is the skeleton of a man. In life, he was a wealthy middle-aged Roman. He died sometime around 200AD and was buried in a fine lead coffin that must have cost his family a heap of denarii (think ‘pennies’). It was – and still is - decorated with scallop shells, apparently a symbol of re-birth. And now the man's remains, and his coffin, rest together in the excellent Verulamium Museum, St Albans.
The man was found in 1989 during building work in what is now a quiet residential area of the City. I won’t tell you the name of the road (though I gather the gardens thereabouts do very nicely), but Watling Street, the Roman road that ran from the ports at Dover and Richborough via London and St Albans to Wroxeter in the West Midlands, is nearby.
And this is what he might have looked like. A forensic facial reconstruction was undertaken by expert Richard Neave and the bust now sits close to its model in the coffin. Next to them, you can watch an award-winning video about this man’s life and times, in which an actor plays the part of our lost and found again Roman. They have named him ‘Postumus’, which my perceptive reader will recognise is a pun. Postumus was also a real Roman name – there was an Emperor Postumus in the 3rd century.
Now, what do you make of this? Are you gazing into the face wondering what he was like? Or are you contemplating his remains feeling uncomfortable at the idea of a human being displayed as an exhibit in a museum? When does something fairly personal – and things don’t get much more personal than a person’s remains – become fair game for the public to gawp at?
Me? - I’m humbled and intrigued. Humbled partly because this was once a living person, a human being with feelings just like you and I, and partly because I’m gazing at the remains of someone who experienced a bit of our story. Postumus and his contemporaries are in their way a fragment of us, possibly biologically but certainly culturally. This was, I imagine, a civilised man who enjoyed a relatively luxurious lifestyle in a community based on the rule of law. He’d meet friends and business associates, maybe at the baths; perhaps he took his wife to the theatre. His home would have been comfortable, probably centrally heated. He would have enjoyed imported goods, such as wine and olives, from all over the Empire. Obviously, he would have had a mum and dad. You can’t help wondering what his dreams were, whether he had any children himself and, if so, what became of them. This man’s genes could be flowing through your body (or whatever it is that genes do). And I want to know how he managed to keep so many teeth.