The Arbury Coffin

In the Archæological Museum in Cambridge [was] a stone coffin* [The Arbury Coffin]  containing the skeletons of a woman, a mouse and a shrew. The ankle-bone of the woman has been slightly gnawed. The exhibit inspired Sylvia Plath to write a poem: All the Dead Dears.

All the Dead Dears by Sylvia Plath

Rigged poker -stiff on her back
With a granite grin
This antique museum-cased lady
Lies, companioned by the gimcrack
Relics of a mouse and a shrew
That battened for a day on her ankle-bone.
These three, unmasked now, bear
Dry witness
To the gross eating game
We’d wink at if we didn’t hear
Stars grinding, crumb by crumb,
Our own grist down to its bony face.
How they grip us through think and thick,
These barnacle dead!
This lady here’s no kin
Of mine, yet kin she is: she’ll suck
Blood and whistle my narrow clean
To prove it.
As I think now of her hand,
From the mercury-backed glass
Mother, grandmother, greatgrandmother
Reach hag hands to haul me in,
And an image looms under the fishpond surface
Where the daft father went down
With orange duck-feet winnowing this hair —
All the long gone darlings:
They Get back, though, soon,
Soon: be it by wakes, weddings,
Childbirths or a family barbecue:
Any touch, taste, tang’s
Fit for those outlaws to ride home on,
And to sanctuary: usurping the armchair
Between tick And tack of the clock, until we go,
Each skulled-and-crossboned Gulliver
Riddled with ghosts, to lie
Deadlocked with them, taking roots as cradles rock.

TUE 19 JUNE 2012
Roman Arbury and Sylvia Plath Talk
Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge
Talk with questions and answers looking at the Roman period in Arbury, north Cambridge.
In the 1950s, excavations revealed a number of Roman burials in Arbury. One lead-lined coffin, complete with a female skeleton, went on display in Cambridge. The exhibit that inspired Sylvia Plath  is now back on display in a temporary exhibition at the Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology.

C. Fell. 1955. ‘Roman Burials at Arbury Road, 1952’, Proc. Camb. Arch. Soc. 49: 13-23. Burial 4.

*The almost seven foot long, stone coffin and lid were of Barnack Rag (Oolitic limestone), found with the lid already broken. Pieces of the woollen shroud, in plain weave and matt weave survived and also some snail- shells, as well as the mouse and shrew skeletons with the female skeleton.

As a matter of coincidence, my husband purchased a few East Anglian magazines from a Jubilee stall in the High Street. One of the magazines (dated March, 1954, Volume 13 (5)) had an article which makes mention of the finding of the  coffins in Arbury Road, Cambridge:

‘It was hereabouts that the Roman Road known as Akeman Street ran through from Cambridge to Ely. The remains of a house and many pieces of pottery have been found, also a Roman well, lined with oak board and still intact. late coins were found, too, and one of the Emperor Trajan (98-117 A.D.).’ [Lister, I. F., p.303]

‘On this Arbury Road site at Chesterton, Cambridge, there were discovered in 1952 coffins hewn out of solid stone and lined with lead a quarter of an inch thick and each containing a perfect skeleton perhaps about 1500 years old.’ [Lister, I. F., p.304]

The ancient stone coffin discovered on the Arbury Road site, Chesterton (Lister 1954: 303)


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