Many coffin lids were decorated with patterns. Scallop shells are common motifs on lids of lead coffins especially in the Thames Valley area from Colchester to Kent. Such shells are associated with the pagan belief of the journey of the dead to the Underworld. In addition, in Romano-Celtic culture this motif may have been seen as a reference to fertility and rebirth.
The scallop shell has no connection with Christian belief in Roman Britain but was later adopted by pilgrims visiting the Spanish shrine of St James of Compostella from the 7th century onwards.
One particular coffin, found in the Roman cemetery at Spitalfields (SRP98), has shown how such coffins were made. The lid is highly-decorated with a cable pattern dividing the lid into diamonds and triangles enclosing scallop shells and a rectangle at the foot-end.
The base and lid would have been separately fashioned from a sheet of lead in a large tray of damp sand. In the case of the lid, the scallop shell pattern would have been made by impressing a real scallop shell face down in the sand. Molten lead was then poured into the mould to produce the patterns in relief.
Once hardened, the sides and ends of the two parts of the coffin were cut and the edges folded up. The joints were soldered and the top edges bent inwards to form the upright joints. The lid was made in a similar fashion with the side and end edges folded down and the excess strips of lead at the corners wrapped around to form the corner angle.