More on Roman child’s coffin from Leicestershire

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The Roman child’s last moments may offer archaelogists a unique insight into the otherwise mysterious world of Romano-British funeral customs and religious practices

More on Roman child's coffin from Leicestershire
A
lead coffin, thought to be for a child and of the Roman era unearthed
in a ploughed field at Witherley by metal detector group, Digging Up the
Past. The coffin is being analysed by archaeologists in Warwick
[Credit: Warwickshire County Council]

Experts analysing the remains from the Oriens Roman burial hope they may find answers as to how the child and her community celebrated Christmas.

Samples from the small lead coffin, including soil, jewellery and even some skeletal fragments, are undergoing extensive and exhaustive testing.

Found by metal detectorist Chris Wright on October 24 in a Witherley field, the coffin is thought to have been the last resting place of a young girl from a rich family.

More on Roman child's coffin from Leicestershire
Experts at Archaelology Warwick in Warwick looking at a 1700 year old Roman childs coffin found by Chris Wright in a field in Leicestershire [Credit: Warwickshire County Council]

Named Oriens as a mark of respect, the child and her last moments may offer archaelogists a unique insight into the otherwise mysterious world of Romano-British funeral customs and religious practices.

Stuart Palmer, from Archaeology Warwickshire commissioned to unearth and study Oriens, said the results could offer pioneering new evidence into life and death for the population of the A5 corridor more than 1,600 years ago.

“It is a very exciting find. We are hoping tell-tale signs of certain oils, herbs and ungents will be found in samples from within the coffin which might point to whether Oriens was Christian or not. It is likely there were differences in funeral rights and this is the sort of groundbreaking research we are dealing with.”

More on Roman child's coffin from Leicestershire
Archaeologist Rob Jones,Founder Chris Wright,Stuart Palmer Archaeology Warwick Business Manager and Proff Brendan Keely from the University of York [Credit: Warwickshire County Council]

Across Britain around 300 or so coffins have been discovered but only a handful belong to children. Experts believe this was due to high infant mortality so children’s deaths were common place and most would be placed in the ground covered by a simple shroud.

Oriens lead-lined coffin and the presence of jet rings, perhaps bracelets or hair adornments, suggests she was a girl from an important and or wealthy family.

Mr Palmer said: “We do not have an accurate enough date yet to say whether Oriens came from Christian Romano-Britain. We think the burial is from 300 or 400 AD which would be within the period when everyone in Britain would officially have been Christian because that was the imperial decree. Of course that doesn’t mean the local people prescribed to that religion or even had a clue as to what it was about. Certainly it appears Oriens belonged to a wealthy family who would have been more Romanised than poorer individuals.”

More on Roman child's coffin from Leicestershire
Archaeologist Rob Jones taking the top coat of clay off [Credit: Warwickshire County Council]

The Chronography of 354, an illuminated manuscript compiled in Rome contains early evidence of the celebration on December 25 of a Christian liturgical feast of the birth of Jesus Christ. In Eastern Christianity his birth was already celebrated in connection with the Epiphany on January 6.

Prior to and through the early Christian centuries winter festivals – especially those centred on the winter solstice – were the most popular of the year in many pagan European cultures.

Pre-Christian Romans marked Saturnalia on December 21, believing the shortest day of the year was the birthday of the sun. Roman Emporer Constantine was a member of the sun-cult before converting to Christianity in 312.

More on Roman child's coffin from Leicestershire
Roman coffin nails [Credit: Warwickshire County Council]

Saturnalia, like many pagan celebrations involved feasting, drinking, singing, enjoy gambling and chariot racing. There was also a festival for the birthday of Mithras, an Iranian god, whose worship was popular with Roman soldiers.

While early Christians may not have celebrated Christ’s birth on December 25 it was certain Romans were having a high old time and ancient Celts and Britons also marked the solstice with festivals and possibily animal sacrifice.

It is thought most of our Christmas traditions come from pagan festivals which were Christianised as the new religion spread – perhaps to make it more appealing.

Author: Karen Hambridge | Source: Hinckley Times [December 29, 2013]

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