1. The skull of a Roman victim of violence found by London Wall.

The only good Romans...

'In my long archaeological career in London I have excavated many hundreds of burials, but this is the first Roman sarcophagus I have ever discovered, still surviving in its original place of deposition,' says Gillian King, Senior Planner Archaeology in Southwark, the only London borough outside the City with an in-house archaeologist.

The sarcophagus,which can now be seen in Roman Dead, an exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands, came to light in Harper Road, SE1, at the end of 2017 after nearly a year's excavation, prior to a new housing development.

The work revealed part of a Roman road, which re-drew the known alignment of the highway over the River Thames from the City of London heading south to Chichester and south-east to Dover.

2. Gillian King with Michael Tsoukaris (Head of Design and Conservation, Southwark Council), Peter John (Leader of Southwark Council) and the newly discovered sarcophagus.

'Our excavations had already proved better than anticipated when we found the sarcophagus at the 11th hour,' says King. 'It was the cherry on the cake.'

Dating from the 4th century and weighing more than two tons, the sarcophagus is only the third of its kind to have been found in situ in London. The others were at St Martin-in-the-Fields and Spitalfields. 'We didn't know how badly it was cracked underneath,' explains King. 'Watching it being lifted up by crane, we held our breaths.'

Burials were not allowed inside Roman cities, so the islands and marshlands on the south bank, opposite Londinium, became one of the main cemeteries, prompting a comparison of the Thames with the River Styx.

Excavations in this area of Southwark carried out between 2003–4 revealed decorated Romano-Celtic temples as well as signs of burials and cremations in a 'complex ritual landscape' of religious monuments. The sarcophagus was clearly made for someone of importance, but it was looted long ago.

3. Jet Medusa-head pendant, one of many items from around the Empire.

'We are incredibly excited to display the Harper Road sarcophagus for the first time,' says Meriel Jeater, a curator at the Museum of London. 'Discoveries of this kind are rare and reveal new stories and alter perspectives of our great city.'

Other items on display include one of the richest internments in Southwark, a chalk-burial of a 14-year-old girl, found with a bone inlay box, glass, and an ivory clasp knife depicting a leopard. Then there is the tombstone of 10-year-old Marciana found during excavations of the City wall in 1979. Other objects include a multi-coloured glass dish, which held cremated remains, and a jet pendant in the form of a Medusa's head that might have offered protection on the journey through the Underworld.

Several skulls of victims of violence, found by London Wall, are also on display in this show that examines the rituals of death, burial and cremation in Roman Londinium. Roman Dead will be on show at the Museum of London Docklands from 25 May to 28 October 2018.

Roger Williams