Unique Roman glass dish found at London grave site

LONDON Wed Apr 29, 2009 11:32am EDT

1 of 4. Liz Goodman, Museum of London conservator is seen with a Roman Millefiore bowl.

Credit: Reuters/Museum of London/Handout

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LONDON (Reuters) - Archaeologists have unearthed a Roman glass bowl, thought to be a unique find in the Western Roman Empire, at an ancient cemetery beyond the walls of the old city of London.

The "millefiori" dish (a thousand flowers), believed to date from around the 2nd to 3rd century A.D., is a mosaic of hundreds of indented blue petals with white bordering.

"For it to have survived intact is amazing. In fact, it is unprecedented in the western Roman world," said Jenny Hall, curator of the Roman collection at the Museum of London.

"We are still checking out whether there are similar examples surviving in the eastern part of the empire, in ancient Alexandria for example, but it's the only one in the West," she told reporters.

Archaeologists said the dish was colored bright red when it was first pulled from the earth, as the intricate design was imbedded in opaque red glass.

The bright vermilion color has slowly disappeared since excavation as the water-saturated glass dried out. The moisture had preserved the original coloring, but some of the pigment is still distinguishable around the rim.

The artifact was found 2.5 to 3 meters (yards) down at a sprawling ancient cemetery in Aldgate, east London, just beyond the old city walls. Romans were required by law to bury their dead outside the city gates.

It formed part of a cache of grave goods found close to a wooden container holding the ashes of a probably wealthy Roman citizen from the ancient imperial outpost of Londinium, now mostly hidden beneath modern-day London.

Other artifacts recovered with the bowl included ceramic pottery and glass flasks which once contained perfumed oil used to anoint the body.

Guy Hunt, director of commercial archaeology services firm L-P: Archaeology who was in charge of the six-month dig at the site, said the cemetery covers a massive area.

"No-one knows how big the cemetery really is. Some think it could be up to 16 hectares (40 acres), disappearing under roads and buildings," he said.

Hunt said the section of the cemetery that was excavated originally sat under Victorian houses flattened during World War Two.

Subsequently turned into a car park and now about to be redeveloped, the site offered an opportunity for proper exploration. The rubble from the shattered buildings helped to inter the finds, Hunt said.

"It is a miracle of preservation."

The dish goes on show at the Museum of London Docklands in the southeast of the British capital from the end of April.

(Editing by Paul Casciato)

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