A VANDAL attack on a priceless 1,600-year-old Roman sarcophagus in Dorchester has been met with sadness and anger.

The artefact, which was out in the open within the Brownsword Hall at Poundbury, was damaged in what locals said was a ‘senseless’ attack.

Police said the lid of the stone coffin was removed and ‘damaged beyond repair’.

Officers said several people would have been involved due to the weight of the lid.

The sarcophagus, given to the Duchy of Cornwall by the SSE electricity board which discovered it on its land, was being kept at the hall temporarily and was due to move soon to a permanent covered display area at the new Damers School site at Poundbury.

A spokesman for the Duchy of Cornwall said: “It’s sad that mindless vandals or hapless thieves have done such a thing.”

The damaged item has now been put into storage as the Duchy seeks advice, the Echo understands.

County council senior archaeologist Steve Wallis: “We were shocked and saddened to hear about the vandalism.”

Locals say there is a problem in the area generally with anti-social behaviour.

Police believe the sarcophagus damage was a ‘rare and hopefully isolated incident’ rather than part of an emerging anti-social behaviour problem.

Anthony Riley, 28, head chef at the nearby Poet Laureate, said: “I heard a big crash at about two o’clock in the morning on Sunday and I think it might have been the sarcophagus.

“I came downstairs for work at 9am and saw it smashed on the road all over here and called the caretaker of Brownsword Hall.”

He added: “It would be nice to get the anti-social behaviour and vandalism sorted out here.”

Alex Ford, 37, co-owner of The Poet Laureate said: “It’s disgusting, isn’t it? I think it’s really disappointing. It’s a shame something like that can’t just be left alone and admired.”

Iain Rymer, 49, proprietor of Art Hair, also near the scene, said: “It is just an absolute disgrace, such senseless vandalism.”

Police said the sarcophagus, which had nothing inside, was damaged sometime between 11pm on Saturday, April 15 and 6am on Easter Sunday, April 16.

Although police said the lid had been damaged beyond repair, it is understood the Duchy of Cornwall is seeking advice from specialist conservators about a possible repair.

Tim Medhurst, auctioneer and valuer at Duke’s Auctioneers said: “Thousands of pounds of damage have been done potentially.

“This is an important piece of history that has been destroyed and it is a shame.”

He said that Duke’s had sold a marble Roman sarcophagus from the first or second century in 2013 for £40,000.

PCSO Matt Barton, of Dorchester police, said: “Because of the age of the item, it was considered priceless and irreplaceable.

“Due to the weight of the lid, it is likely to have taken several people to remove it and I am appealing for anyone who has seen anything suspicious in the area on the night in question or who has any information to contact me.”

Anyone with information is asked to contact Dorset Police quoting crime number 55170057253.

'Hopefully an isolated incident'

RESPONDING to concerns of anti-social behaviour, Sergeant Ged Want, of Dorchester police, said: “Dorchester’s Neighbourhood Policing Team takes reports of anti-social behaviour very seriously and we are aware of the impact this type of behaviour can have on communities.

“We have a range of tactics available to use to deal with groups causing anti-social behaviour and we have had some recent success in dealing with problems in the town.”

He added: “This type of damage is rare and hopefully an isolated incident rather than part of an emerging anti-social behaviour problem.

“The NPT meets monthly with partner agencies to discuss emerging anti-social behaviour issues in the town and I would urge anyone with concerns to report it to police so we are able to tackle these problems effectively.

“In the meantime NPT patrols will be stepped up in the area.”