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Friday, 7 February 2014


Roman burials, St Albans, Havercroft Close, King Harry Lane
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.

Richard Neave, Verulamium, Roman Britain, museum St Albans
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.

Lead coffin, scallop, rebirth, visit Britain


  1. i plan to be cremated - just so my skeleton can never be 'found' and displayed. :)

  2. I'm intrigued... it's a strange mix of uneasiness and curiousity though. It's always that way with a body display.

  3. It does feel a little disrespectful, especially when gawping at the mummified remains in a museum, but I agree with you that you find yourself wondering about their life. It makes it real and not something just read in a book. I plan on being cremated and not dug up later on to make way for more burials. As I say to my kids, I'm going for a BBQ and then a swim down the Thames when I go! (too much?!!).

  4. I love the way objects can connect us with history : be it a skeleton or a scribbled note on the back of an old posrtcard. As for the reconstruction - I feel I know him.

  5. These things are always interesting to me, like the bog people. I'm pretty sure that Postumus doesn't care at this point, whether or not people are gawking at him. But the likeness seems a little too haggard and thin for someone who was middle aged and wealthy. I think he should have a smile on his face. Loved Chel's comment.

  6. Fantastically fascinating blog. I'm off for a good ol' read.

    Beneath Thy Feet

  7. I'm definitely wondering what he was like. I find it very hard to get over the idea that real living breathing people lived centuries before we were even thought of, and in the same world - just at a different time. Wow.

  8. Like you I love seeing Roman remains and recently visited Chedworth Roman Villa


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