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Idea Exchange: Excavating the first Roman sarcophagus found in Southwark

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London is a world city with an exceptional history and archaeology.


  • Project: Roman sarcophagus excavation, 25-29 Harper Road
  • Timescale: December 2016 to present
  • Cost to authority: Nil. Funded from s106 obligations and from developer funding of all assessment, fieldwork, post excavation analysis, publication, archiving and conservation
  • Number of staff working on project: One, supported by specialist officers across the council departments
  • Outcomes: Preservation of important Roman archaeology: including a major Roman road, over 200 coins, major roman settlement and funerary structures, including a mausoleum and a fourth century stone sarcophagus
  • Officer contact details: Gillian King

In the face of development pressure, London’s archaeology must be discovered, understood, protected and preserved.

For the majority of London (31 of the 33 local authority areas) Historic England’s Greater London Archaeological Advisory Service carries out this protective role. The other two areas – Southwark LBC and City of London Corporation – have their own in-house archaeologists. I am Southwark’s archaeologist, and prior to this I worked for Historic England GLAAS, as the archaeological adviser for Westminster City Council and south-west London.

gillian king web

gillian king

Gillian King

Southwark LBC won the ‘Best Planning Authority Award’ at the 2016-17 London Planning Awards. This recognises the authority that has contributed the most towards supporting London’s growth and success as a world city. Southwark is an industry leader with regard to heritage-led regeneration and the identification and protection of archaeological interest on all its sites. We know archaeology is a finite and non-renewable resource; once it is gone, it is gone forever.

We take our duty as custodians of the borough’s historic environment very seriously and we have preserved in-situ nationally significant monuments such as the Rose, Globe and Hope Shakespearean play-houses, a roman bath-house and boat, as well as medieval palaces and monastic sites.

Recently we discovered further evidence of Southwark’s remarkable Roman settlement and cemetery, which contained a complete fourth-century stone sarcophagus. This is the first Roman sarcophagus discovered in Southwark and is a remarkably important find nationally. This is just one of the many archaeological projects that we manage.

The Harper Road site, where the sarcophagus was uncovered, is within a designated archaeological priority zone, so it was known to be historically significant. Archaeological interest is carefully protected through the planning process, by local and national planning policy and by archaeological conditions placed on planning consent. We have provided the developer with archaeological advice on the sensitivity of this site from the earliest stages of the project. In these difficult financial times, we require that developers pay for the cost of this important work. The Southwark archaeologist post is paid for through s106 contributions.

Archaeological assessment, strategies and negotiations were formulated during 2016 and archaeological excavation of the whole footprint of the new development began in December 2016, in compliance with pre-commencement planning conditions. The professional archaeological excavation had been running for over six months, when the sarcophagus was discovered in July 2017.

As Southwark’s archaeologist it is my responsibility to implement best practice for all our development sites. I was supported by the developer, Galliard Homes, its archaeological consultant CgMs; the archaeologists, Pre-Construct Archaeology; and the professional lifting company, Cliveden Conservation.

The sarcophagus find raised a number of challenges, benefits and unique elements.

The challenge was primarily that the sarcophagus, its lid and contents weighed over two tons and it had been robbed and potentially extensively damaged in antiquity. We knew we wanted to lift it intact, but the fear was that it would be too fragile. The lid was broken in two pieces and these could be lifted separately but the main coffin structure had to be lifted as one, with all its precious contents intact.

Southwark’s local residents, Londoners and many others are able to enjoy this beautiful and unique find. The sarcophagus was successfully professionally lifted and is now at the Museum of London, awaiting excavation of the contents, analysis and conservation.

Gillian King, senior planner archaeology, Southwark LBC


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