When goldsmith Jacqueline Mina agreed to help investigate fragments of ancient gold thread found on a buried Roman skeleton, it was clear it would become one of London’s most significant archaeological finds. The remains of the woman would come to be known as the Princess of the City and would help define some of Mina’s best examples of contemporary jewellery.
On 14 March 1999, a team from Museum of London Archaeology discovered a large Roman sarcophagus dating to the 4th century AD right on a development site at Spitalfields, east London. The excavations – 400 metres east of the Roman city of Londinium – had unearthed a Roman cemetery.
Of the estimated 150 graves found on the site right at the edge of the Square Mile, this stone sarcophagus, intact with a rare lead coffin, was particularly significant. It was the first such discovery in London in over 100 years, and as such, the first to benefit from proper scientific analysis. As the then director of the Museum, Dr Simon Thurley, commented: “We knew we had a find with the potential to rewrite the way we see the history of Roman London.”
Indeed, the lavishly decorated lead coffin was a promise of what the archaeologists were later to find inside: an unusually well-preserved Roman skeleton and a dazzling array of grave goods. News articles from the time excitedly reported that when the lid of the coffin was removed, archaeologists and conservators had to work around the clock for 36 hours to preserve the contents before they dried out. Gradually, jewellery, scraps of textile and even, miraculously, a pillow of bay leaves (on which the occupant’s head would have rested) were uncovered, preserved by layers of silt that had seeped into the coffin. Also amongst the treasure, buried in the mud, were tiny, tantalising fragments of gold thread.