Kent Archaeological Review extract

A Roman Stone Coffin at Keston.
by Edna Mynott.
(West Kent Archaeology Group.)

The excavation of the Roman cemetery at Keston, by the West Kent group in 1967-8, revealed a great deal of important information about burial aspects of the villa site. See Reference [1]. The site had, however, been extensively probed on several occasions in the previous 170 years. One of these was in 1938 when workmen, digging a small hole for a post on the Keston Foreign Bird Farm, struck a large flat stone. As a larger area was opened up the top of a substantial Roman stone coffin was revealed. Mr A Brooksbank, owner of the site, called in some of the London Museum staff to examine the discovery. Under the direction of Mr J B Ward Perkins a complete stone coffin was soon revealed and this was removed to the London Museum. The coffin contained an adult male, partly covered in gypsum, but without any associated grave goods. An account of the discovery was published in 1938. See Reference [2].

Although the discovery of another Roman stone coffin at Keston, where at least two other stone coffins had previously been found, might seem predictable, one particular fact has always stood out as a major problem. This is that the burial discovered in 1938 was found about 200 feet west of the cemetery where all the other burials were located! Work by the group in 1976 over much of the area between the two burial sites had failed to reveal more burials and it seemed likely that they were in fact unrelated. If two separate Roman cemeteries did exist then this would be a most significant advance in knowledge of what was purely a villa site.

Happily at the end of 1977 the manager of the Keston Foreign Bird Farm kindly agreed to let the group excavate a substantial area which Mr Brooksbank had pointed out as the site of the 1938 discovery. It was hoped that this would help resolve the problem of a second cemetery and also provide more details, such as plan and section, of the original burial chamber. However, work throughout the winter months of 1977-8 failed to locate any further burials in the available area, mostly east and south of the original find-spot, but the 1938 burial-chamber was eventually found.

Enquiries revealed that the stone coffin had gone to the London Museum just before the Second World War, then housed in Lancaster House. Unfortunately, the coffin had been destroyed by enemy bombing in 1940. A few brief notes still survive in the new Museum of London where they were examined by the group. In addition the group holds several photographs, taken in 1938, which add further details. This report deals with both the original work and the new and discusses the wider implications.

(Of the large team that worked on this area special thanks are due to Misses Audrey Button, Elizabeth Parish, Joanne Wall and to Messrs P Grant, P Couldrey, M Godfrey, L Johnson and D Tucker.)

DRAWING: Lower Warbank 1978.

Figure 1. Lower Warbank 1978.

The Burial Chamber.

The new excavation revealed that the stone coffin had been placed in a carefully dug chamber much larger than the coffin itself (Figure 1). This was basically oblong in plan with vertical sides and a flat base. It was dug into solid chalk to a depth of 4 feet 6 inches and its size was about 8 feet 6 inches by 4 feet 6 inches. The south end had been cut away at almost 45° to create a ramp about 6 feet long and about 4 feet wide. This entered the main chamber about 1 foot 2 inches above its base and probably provided a means of sliding the heavy coffin into place close to the bottom of the pit. Part of the chalk rubble fill still remained and this suggested that the coffin had not rested directly on the cut base and also confirmed that it had been placed close to the west side. No trace remained of two stakeholes reported to have been on the east side of the coffin though these have been included on the plan.

The Coffin.

Although this has been destroyed much information can be gleaned from the original notes and the photographs. It consisted of two pieces, the coffin and the flat lid. Both had been cut from single pieces of Kentish Ragstone and were about 4 inches thick. The coffin proper was 6 feet 9 inches in total length, 2 feet 9 inches wide at the original head-end and tapered to only 2 feet wide at its curved foot-end. It stood about 1 foot 9 inches high and seems to have been roughly vertical sided. There is no suggestion of any decoration, but the photographs show very clear evidence of tooling on the inside of the coffin. The lid seems to have been sealed with lead. The coffin has been projected onto the sections and plan in its approximate position.

The Skeleton.

This was of an adult male "of middle height". He had been laid flat on his back in the coffin, head to the south-east with arms and legs straight. A layer of liquid gypsum (plaster of paris in effect) had been poured over the body and this survived over the legs giving a clear cast. No other details are known.

Date and discussion.

In the absence of grave-goods a precise date for the burial is difficult to reach. There can be little doubt that the burial is Roman. Both stone coffins and gypsum coverings are known elsewhere in south-east Britain, the nearest site being at Dartford. See Reference [3]. Inhumations and gypsum coverings tend to be a feature of the third and fourth centuries and the absence of grave-goods generally supports this dating.

Significantly, the main Roman cemetery at Keston seems to date from about AD 150-250 after which it seems to have been used for dumping rubbish. If so, a new cemetery area is implied and it could well be that this burial formed part of it though more burials will need to be found in this area to prove the point. Strangely the stone coffin under discussion here was found less than 100 ft. from the north end of the villa house. Why there should be a change of burial area is difficult to gauge. Just possibly the occupant of the coffin was a 4th century Christian who preferred to be buried away from the earlier cemetery which was so clearly pagan in character.

What is also very interesting is the size and significance of the actual coffin. It could have weighed about half a ton and must have been made in a quarry somewhere along the Lower Greensand ridge. It is highly unlikely that this was a one-off arrangement and more probably it is an indication that a limited, specialised industry, perhaps in the Maidstone area was producing coffins to meet a demand. In addition there had to be facilities for the transportation of such heavy objects over many miles and a corresponding organisation to deal with it. Clearly ragstone was being quarried somewhere in Kent on a large scale in Roman times as it has been found on many sites over Kent, London and Essex.


Footnote 1.

Philp, B J. KAR, Number 11 (1968), page 10. Return to the paragraph.

Footnote 2.

Ward Perkins, J. B. Arch. Cant., Volume L (1938), page 164. Return to the paragraph.

Footnote 3.

Victoria County History, Kent. Volume III (1932), page 89. Return to the paragraph.
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