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Roman museum comes face to face with the past

The Bath stone coffin and its resident skeleton at the National Roman Legion Museum in Caerleon have always provoked a great deal of interest from visitors. Now, for the very first time, the face of the coffin’s resident has been unveiled in a portrait, which is on display at the museum, following collaborative research initiated by Amgueddfa Cymru conservators which included isotope analyses and 3D modelling.


Isotope analyses, carried out on the skeleton’s teeth at the NERC Isotope Geosciences Laboratory near Nottingham, revealed that the man in the coffin had spent his childhood years, between the ages of five and eight, in the Newport area – he was most probably a local boy. A forensic facial reconstruction was then created with the help of the Faculty of Science at Liverpool John Moores University, Newport Medieval Ship Project and the Centre for Human Anatomy and Human Identification at the University of Dundee.

The results were used by Amgueddfa Cymru conservator and artist, Penny Hill, to create a modern portrait of the man in life, using materials and artistic conventions known to have been used in surviving Roman paintings or ancient literary sources in order to give the modern, framed, portrait something of a Roman feel. The portrait was fully funded by the Aurelius Trust.

The Roman Bath stone coffin containing the skeleton of a well-preserved male of about 40 years of age buried circa AD 200, was discovered in November 1995, during building work to enlarge the Caerleon Campus of Newport University. The remains were carefully recovered and moved to the National Roman Legion Museum in Caerleon for study and conservation. The coffin base, skeleton and associated artefacts were conserved and first displayed at the museum in spring 2002.

Dr Mark Lewis said, “I’m delighted that the final part of the redisplay has been completed. We felt that the research potential of the skeletal remains had not been realised and we wanted to attempt to reconstruct the face of the man in the coffin using modern forensic techniques otherwise used by the Police.

“The research undertaken to create the final portrait would not have been possible without funding by the Aurelius Trust for which we are most grateful. Finding out more about the skeleton tells us more about the Romans here in south Wales and how life today wouldn't be the same without them.”