Oriens: Shining a light on Britain’s Roman Past

Oriens: Shining a light on Britain’s Roman Past

This resource is dedicated to Oriens, the Romano-British Child buried close to Roman Mancetter over 1600 years ago and currently residing with Archaeology Warwickshire.

We will be adding to this content over time as more information becomes available, so please bookmark this page and keep checking back for updates.

Oriens’ Story So Far

On Thursday 24th October 2013, Chris Wright was out metal detecting with a local club in a field close to the site of the Roman Fort at Mancetter when his detector returned an unusually strong signal from a deeply buried object. Curiosity got the better of him and he began to dig, going down over 3 feet until he could make out the form of a small lead coffin.

The Lead Coffin as it was first found.

The Lead Coffin as it was first found.

On realising that what he had found was very likely the coffin of a Roman child, Chris stopped digging and contacted the Police and Leicestershire County Council to seek assistance. Advice was returned that the coffin should not be removed from the ground but should be covered over and left exactly how it was found. By this point, concerns were high that the coffin could be at risk from less scrupulous detectorists. Fortunately Chris’ mum Jo came to the rescue and generously agreed to fund the lifting and assessment of the coffin, Archaeology Warwickshire were duly commissioned to recover the coffin and initiate its scientific study.

The Team from Archaeology Warwickshire  examine the find

The Team from Archaeology Warwickshire examine the find

What followed could have come straight from the pages of adventure fiction as members of the local history group, Leicestershire Police and Private Security Officers provided a day-and-night vigil until licence was given to Archaeology Warwickshire from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to remove the coffin from the ground and keep it for a year to document and study.

Once the MoJ licence was obtained, it took four of us almost an entire day to remove the incredibly delicate, and extremely heavy, lead coffin from the Leicestershire soil where it had been for over 1600 years. Once safely removed from the ground, we transported it to our offices in Warwick so we could begin the process of study and analysis.

As a priority first-step, an endoscope was inserted into one of the existing split seams in order to determine what lay inside, how it could be opened and most importantly, whether it presented any risks to health and safety. The endoscope study revealed that the coffin was filled with a mixture of clay and silt and therefore could safely be opened with minimum risk of encountering organic remains.

It is expected to take up to six months for all the tests to be completed and all results will be published on this page as they become available. Below you will find what we know and have found out so far.

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The Coffin

When the coffin was excavated several Roman nails were recovered from the surrounding soil; Roman nails are recognisable for their square shanks.(Pictured). These finds confirm that the lead was merely the inner lining of a wooden box, now long-since rotted away, although, it is easier to continue to talk about the Oriens’ lead coffin’ rather than her lead-lined coffin.

Coffin Nails that once held the outside of Oriens' Coffin to the Lead Lining

Coffin Nails that once held together the wooden outer coffin

Lead Coffins still seem to be relatively uncommon in the Roman World and may well have been the preserve of the wealthy or those of high-status. We know of over 300 from Britain although Oriens is one of a small number of children to be found buried.

One reason so few coffins containing the remains of Roman period children are found may, paradoxically, be to do with the remarkably high rate of infant mortality at that time. It is possible that children may not have achieved full personhood at such a young age, a corollary of uncertain life expectancy, perhaps even due to lives being in the hands of capricious gods. Most Roman period children appear to have been placed in the ground in little more than a burial shroud. The fact that Oriens was buried in a lead-lined coffin makes it reasonable to infer that, in life, the child was from a wealthy or socially important family in the Romano-British community. This inference is supported by the body adornments found when the coffin was opened.

With contents removed experts get a better view of the coffin.

With contents removed experts get a better view of the coffin.

The coffin lining (Pictured) is revealing a number of interesting features. For instance, it was constructed from two individual sheets of lead, thicker at the head end than at the foot. Lead sheets had to be cast from molten lead which was poured over a mould. It is clear that these two sheets were poured from the head end and great skill was required to keep the molten metal moving before it quickly cooled and set hard. It is possible that the moulds were also heated to ensure the free-flow of the cooling lead. Future testing of the lead may reveal where exactly it was originally sourced from.

Visible hammer marks around Oriens coffin

Visible hammer marks around Oriens coffin

The inner side of the coffin has revealed inscribed lines or pattern marks and the method of construction conforms to a type previously recorded, Clearly Orien’s coffin was made by craftsmen. The sides were welded using molten lead and the lid was folded over the edges; around the edges of the coffin can still be made-out the indentations of delicate hammer blows. Meticulous cleaning has revealed concretions on the base of the coffin which could possibly be the remains of lime-wash, although further tests will be needed to clarify this. Curiously one of the jet bracelets left an impression on the base of the coffin.

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Body Adornments

As the clay and silt was removed from the coffin, two items of body adornment were revealed. These are bangles or perhaps bracelets fashioned from shiny black stone, probably jet or perhaps shale (Pictured).

The two items of body adornment found in Oriens Coffin

The two items of body adornment found in Oriens Coffin

Jet and shale are formed by decaying wood that is placed under extreme pressures over millions of years. Shale was used in the Late Iron Age and early Roman period but jet body adornments became increasingly popular in Roman Britain from the 3rd century onwards. Jet was collected, mostly by beachcombing at Whitby, North Yorkshire, where it can still be found to this day. From Whitby, the Jet would be transported to York where it would be fashioned into fine jewellery. Bracelets would have been cut out from a blank disc on a lathe, an investment of many hours of labour.

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Such adornments were likely to have been worn by high status individuals in Romano-British society and the fact that Oriens was buried with two of them lends further weight to the suggestion that she was from a wealthy or important Roman family.

Bracelets or hair adornments?

Unfortunately, the positions the bangles were found in the coffin mean it is not possible to determine how Oriens wore them. That being said, bangles worn as bracelets, hung from a necklace, or even worn in hair, are all female adornments and seem very likely to suggest that Oriens was a little girl.

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The Remains of Oriens

All that remains of the body of Oriens is a handful of bone fragments. When the coffin was excavated it was just possible for expert eyes to see fragments arranged in a broadly skeletal form, which tends to suggest Oriens was laid out on her back.

The reason for so few skeletal remains having survived is explained by a number of factors. Because very young children like Oriens grow rapidly, their bones remain unfused and are less resilient to erosion compared to the bones of adults, which often survive in a much more complete state. Added to this, the relatively high acidity level of the soil in which Oriens was buried will have further contributed to the loss of bone material.

Although the fragments of bone that remain may seem like a small amount, microscopic analysis may still reveal aspects of Oriens health and diet.

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Telling the story of Oriens: The Science

Experts from Archaeology Warwickshire investigate the coffin

Experts from Archaeology Warwickshire investigate the coffin

Despite the impression given on many popular archaeology and history television shows, there are often no quick answers when it comes to shining a light into our distant past.

We are confident that Oriens has a lot more to tell us about this period of Romano-British history, but this will be a slow process involving lots of new and cutting-edge science. Already soil and bone samples have been taken and sent to the University of York’s InterArchaeology Project where they will undergo a series of tests and experiments. From these tests it is hoped scientists will be able to start revealing vital information about:

  • signatures of body decay;
  • pre-burial treatment and mortuary practice;
  • clothing and perishable artefacts;
  • diet;
  • cause of death if from certain diseases; and
  • possibly even drug-use.

It will take anywhere up to 6 months before all testing is completed and Archaeology Warwickshire will be using this page to keep you updated of the latest developments, so please bookmark this page and keep checking back for updates.

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What is the future for Oriens?

The Ministry of Justice Licence allows Oriens’ to stay in Warwickshire for up to 12 months to be studied. At the end of this period, she will either be re-interred or an application will be made for an alternative future to permit further study or display in a museum collection.

What’s in a Name?

One of the first thoughts of Archaeologists working on the study of the coffin and its remains was that they represented the remains of a child with a name that had been lost for millennia. As a mark of respect to the child and to avoid constantly referring to the find as ‘It’ or a scientific reference number, we came up with 6 Latin-inspired names. Between November 7th and November 25th, these names were put on the Warwickshire County Council Website and the public encouraged to have their say in picking a favourite.

Over 2 and a half weeks almost 2000 people took part in the vote and Oriens which comes from the Latin verb meaning ‘to rise (in the east like the sun and can also refer to Venus the Morning Star) was picked as the overwhelming favourite and all have since agreed that it is quite fitting for a find that has already told Archaeologists much, but stands poised in the future to reveal more.

The top three names, as chosen by the public, are below:

  1. Oriens (Rise – As the sun) 598 Votes (34% of total)
  2. Accendo (illuminate) 341 Votes (19% of total)
  3. Aperio (Reveal) 280 (16% of the total)

Oriens in the News

Read some of the past news stories from Archaeology Warwickshire on the Oriens find: