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Roman Glass Bowl Unearthed At Ancient London Cemetery

April 29, 2009

Archaeologists have discovered a Roman glass bowl at an ancient cemetery outside the walls of the old city of London.

The “millefiori” dish is a mosaic of hundreds of indented blue petals with white bordering, and is believed to be a rare find in the Western Roman Empire.  It is estimated to date from around 2nd to 3rd century A.D.

“For it to have survived intact is amazing. In fact, it is unprecedented in the western Roman world,” a Reuters report quoted Jenny Hall, curator of the Roman collection at the Museum of London, as saying.

“We are still checking out whether there are similar examples surviving in the eastern part of the empire, in ancient Alexandria for example, but it’s the only one in the West,” she said.

Archaeologists said the bowl was bright red when it was initially discovered, with its complex design imbedded in opaque red glass. However, the bright vermilion color gradually disappeared as the water-saturated glass dried out since its excavation.  Although the moisture had preserved the original coloring, some of the pigment is still noticeable around the rim.

The artifact was discovered about 9 feet down at a vast ancient cemetery in Aldgate, just beyond the old city walls of London. Romans were mandated by law to bury their dead outside London’s gates.

The dish formed part of a collection of grave goods found near a wooden container that held the ashes of a likely wealthy Roman citizen from the ancient imperial colony of Londinium, now hidden beneath modern-day London.

Ceramic pottery and glass flasks that once contained perfumed oil were also discovered with the bowl.

Guy Hunt, who led the six-month dig, said the cemetery covered an enormous area.

“No-one knows how big the cemetery really is. Some think it could be up to 16 hectares (40 acres), disappearing under roads and buildings,” said Hunt, director of commercial archaeology services firm L-P: Archaeology, in an interview with Reuters.

The area of the cemetery that was excavated originally sat under Victorian houses destroyed during World War II, he added.

The area was subsequently converted in to a car park and is now set for re-development.  As such, it provided archaeologists an opportunity to explore the area.  The rubble from the shattered buildings even helped with the find, Hunt said.

“It is a miracle of preservation.”

The dish will be displayed at the Museum of London Docklands.

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