decorative Roman lead coffin from Colchester

Today (14th April), Trust archaeologist Emma Holloway was tracing the lid of a Roman lead coffin here at the Trust’s HQ – at the Colchester Roman circus centre – ahead of producing a precise scale drawing of the lid. Archaeological drawings are made to record artefacts more precisely than photography. The coffin is decorated in a similar way to a Roman lead coffin which the Trust excavated at our Butt Road site in Colchester and which is illustrated in Colchester Archaeological Report 9: Excavations of Roman and later cemeteries, churches and monastic sites in Colchester, 1971-88 (see image below). That coffin was dated to about AD 270/300/320.

Emma has a degree in Ancient History and Archaeology and she has been the Trust’s archaeological illustrator since 2003. Emma plans features and finds on site and, back in the office, she processes small finds and records them by measuring, photographing and drawing them. She also draws archaeological sections and features. Her work is included in Trust site reports and has been published in a number of publications, including the journals Britannia, Essex Archaeology and History and East Anglian Archaeology. Emma has drawn the finds, features and sections for all the Trust’s Colchester garrison sites, for our Head Street Odeon site, and many others. Emma likes to draw bone small finds or, even better, wooden small finds – when we excavate them! The final drawing of the coffin lid will take her several hours to complete.

The lead coffin is damaged. It was 130 cm long and sadly, therefore, it would have been used for the burial of a child who was probably about eight years old. The coffin was made of sheets of cast lead which are about a centimetre thick. The sheets were made by pouring molten lead into clay moulds and then, when solid, they would have been folded into shape and combined. The coffin displays a design consisting of some very interesting decorative details in relief, such as circles, beading, and scallop shells. It also includes some accidental elements such as finger-prints and textile marks… The decorative details of the coffin lid were formed in the mould, in which shallow voids were created by impressing objects into the soft clay, ie a wooden baton (carved in a bead-and-reel pattern), real scallop shells and several actual copper-alloy bracelets as well as a mystery object which produed the pattern of a row of serpentine motifs within a border. The bracelets represented on the lid are especially interesting: Emma has identified the different examples used and these could be studied. The use of objects to create relief-moulded decoration is like a Roman form of 3d-printing!

All the Trust’s fieldwork reports are published online at .

The images show: the lead coffin lid photographed by Emma; Emma tracing the lid today; the tracing of part of the lid; interesting details from the coffin lid, including one of the bangles; and a drawing of a similar coffin and lid (the lid is to the right: from our Butt Road site in Colchester, published in CAR 9).


coffin lid






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