Archaeologists Discover Rare Roman Funerary Bed Buried Beneath London

The wooden bed was likely dismantled IKEA-style before being buried alongside a high-status individual

Archaeologist excavating the funerary bed, beside a reconstruction
An image of an archaeologist excavating the wooden funerary bed and a reconstruction of the artifact (top right) © MOLA

Researchers have unearthed a rare Roman funerary bed 20 feet below the streets of London. It’s the first complete discovery of its kind in Britain, according to a statement from the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA).

Made from high-quality oak, the 2,000-year-old artifact was found at a construction site near the Holborn Viaduct. Excavations also revealed five rare oak coffins—only three such coffins had previously been found in London—alongside skeletal remains and personal objects. Researchers say the site was used as a Roman cemetery.

“We know the Romans buried their dead alongside roads, outside of urban centers,” says Heather Knight, a project officer at MOLA, in the statement. “So it was no great surprise to discover burials at this site, which during the Roman period would have been located 170 meters [558 feet] west of the city walls and next to [a] major Roman road.”

Even so, the team was stunned by how well-preserved the artifacts were. Because wood deteriorates quickly, finding wooden items in such pristine condition is unusual. “Roman wooden furniture only survives under exceptional circumstances,” Michael Marshall, a MOLA finds specialist, tells CNN’s Zara Khan. 

Archaeologist excavating funerary bed
Researchers say the funerary bed may have been buried so that the deceased could use it in the afterlife. © MOLA

The site is located on the banks of the River Fleet, and the trove of artifacts has remained well-preserved thanks to the river’s damp mud. The funerary bed’s impressive design details have survived, such as its carved feet and small wooden pegs that held the sections together.

Archaeologists say the bed may have been used to carry the deceased to the grave. It appears to have been disassembled before burial—giving “IKEA a run for its money,” as Euronews’ Theo Farrant writes.

“It’s been quite carefully taken apart and stashed, almost like flat-packed furniture for the next life,” Marshall tells the Guardian’s Esther Addley.

The bed was buried alongside an upper-class Roman man in his late 20s or early 30s, potentially so he could use it in the afterlife. The team points to other Roman-era tombstones with carvings depicting the deceased “reclining on a couch or bed and eating as if they were alive.”

But while descriptions and images of the practice had been known, archaeologists hadn’t previously encountered examples of it. “That’s something that there is no previous evidence for from Britain,” adds Marshall.

Other discoveries include a glass vial, beaded jewelry and a lamp with an image of a defeated gladiator. Researchers also unearthed chalk floors and timber-lined wells, suggesting a tanning workshop in the 1200s.

The site appears to have been reused as a cemetery in the 16th century. In 1666, the Great Fire of London created a blank slate for the construction of new houses and shops, which were ultimately replaced by Victorian warehouses.

Soon, the area will house new luxury office buildings for the law firm Hogan Lovells, which hopes to put some of the artifacts on display.

“We are fascinated to learn we are part of this significant archaeological discovery on the site of our new London office,” says Penny Angell, the firm’s U.K. managing partner, in the statement. “We are looking forward to seeing what new stories emerge about life here on this historical site.”

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