In the Museum of London I saw a lead coffin decorated with scallop shells. For nearly two thousand years it had held the body of a young Roman woman. She was dressed in wool and jacquard silk woven through with pure gold threads, and her head lay on a pillow of bay leaves.
A glass phial of perfumed oil was placed by the coffin and its massive limestone sarcophagus to send her on a fragrant journey to the Underworld. I learned that scallop shells did not at that time have any Christian associations (the Santiago de Compostella pilgrimages came later) but rather indicate a pagan belief in the Underworld or ‘Isles of the Blessed’. Also called the ‘fortunate isles’, ‘where the air was never harsh in heat or cold, where the rain was but a little silver dew…’