The most mysterious aspect of the Roman burial found recently at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, the church that dominates the eastern side of Trafalgar Square, is not that it was headless, but that it should have come to be buried so far from home, in what was to become Saxon Lundenwic, which was situated a good mile or so the west from Roman Londinium, whose own remains now lie below the modern City of London, with a few sections of the old wall still visible just off Moorgate.
The good news for archaeologists investigating the burial is that in addition to the Roman era skeleton, they have found fragments of early Saxon pottery in the near vicinity, providing them with evidence that instead of there being a 200-year gap between the Romans and Saxons, it now appears that there was a more rapid transition from one set of rulers to their successors.
Rome pulled out of Londinium in 410 AD, and the carbon-14 dating applied to a fragment of bone from the skeleton indicated that its owner had died between 390 and 430 AD, suggesting that he was one of the very last Roman citizens to have been buried in, or near, Londinium – although whether he hailed from Rome, elsewhere in the Roman empire, or was a Romano-Brit, is as yet undetermined.
Although in life he had been a Roman citizen, it is unknown why he, and maybe others whose graves have either been destroyed or otherwise lost, was buried so far to the west of the city walls – it has been suggested that the modern church of St.Martin-in-the-Fields, built ca. 1720 which was built on the site of a mediaeval church, might be able to trace its ancestry back to an early Christian church from the time of the Romans or Saxons.
It is unlikely that more archaeology will be found at the present site for the time being, as the excavation phase of the current modernisation project is now complete; I’m unaware of any other similar projects in the area, so it might be some considerable time before the rest of the subterranean neighbourhood can be searched for further clues to its long past. Trafalgar Square has given up some of its prehistoric ghosts in the shape of the skeletons of buffalo below St. Martins, while ancient hippo and elephant fossils have been found beneath the Square itself.
“The site was surely a prominent place in ancient times – raised up above the Thames with views back to the ancient walls of Londinium and down towards what is now Whitehall and Westminster. Its reputation as a place where treasure could be found was still notorious in the 13th Century.”
For their part, the Saxons would have found the site of the grave, which might have looked like this…
“Anyone coming there in 500 would have been aware of the notable remains – perhaps a brick mausoleum crumbling away,” he says. A Roman brick-kiln has also been found nearby.
And if there was a religious, sacred site, could it have been Christian? When the Last Roman died, Christianity had been officially favoured in the Roman Empire for decades – yet there are few Christian remains from Roman Britain and no identifiable churches in Roman London.
As we have seen from the recent discovery of a Roman settlement alongside Silbury Hill, the Romans were fascinated by at least some of the prehistoric sites they encountered in the British Isles, and it’s tempting to consider the possibility of a lost prehistoric monument or site, that might have been located at or near the burial site, also attracted their attention.
Although there are rumours that a stone circle was once located atop the hill that is Angel, Islington, no traces of it are in evidence, and the only ancient stone that can be found in London is rumoured to have been brought in by outsiders, with Brutus of Troy rumoured to have been one such person.
Should you walk down Cannon St. in the City of London, be sure to pause at No.111, The Bank of China, as there you will find, set into the wall, the so-called ‘London Stone‘, traditionally thought to have been brought to London by Brutus, around 1100 BC, all the way from Troy, though whether it had once been a part of the walls of that city is a moot point. There is even an old saying which runs, “So long as the stone of Brutus is safe, so long shall London flourish”. The Church of St. Swithins, where it was previously housed, was obliterated in an air-raid in 1941, but London Stone escaped damage -n.b. it is apparently always referred to as ‘London Stone’, and never preceded by ‘the…’.
Legend has it that Brutus, or in Welsh ‘Bryttys’ was the first King of Britain, or ‘Brutain’ as it may originally have been known – although Brutus was apparently descended from Aeneas, he hailed from Italy, where the former had settled after the Trojan Wars – so when the Romans arrived in 43 BC, they could, if the legends are true, be viewed as merely following in the footsteps of their ancestral compatriots.
However, there is more than one Brutus associated with early Britain, as can be seen from the above linked Wikipedia entry – moreover, there is apparently a Brutus Stone down in Cornwall as well – it’s likely there was no particular individual who was directly responsible for founding London as a town or city. More probably different groups of pre-Roman and prehistoric people, dating back at least as far as the Mesolithic, made temporary settlements and hunting camps, in what was then marshy land surrounding hills bordering a River Thames that was hundreds of yards wider than it is today.
Remains of a wooden bridge, or jetty, were found in 2002 by TV’s ‘Time Team‘, indicating a human presence dating back to around 1,000 BC – around the time Trojan Brutus is rumoured to have wandered in from Bronze Age Europe, but as mentioned before, no signs of a corresponding settlement have been found.
The Museum of London are hosting an exhibition featuring the Roman skeleton and other discoveries made in the course of the archaeological work done at St. Martins, which will be on until August 8th.