30th October 2020:
Analysis of a late Roman cemetery at Worthy Down Camp near Winchester has revealed remarkable evidence about life in the Roman countryside. As part of Black History Month, we focus on individuals whose origins lay outside Britain.
Oxford Archaeology carried out an excavation at Worthy Down Camp between 2014 and 2016 as part of Project Wellesley, a major development across two sites. Since then, the records and finds have been subject to post-excavation analysis, and the work is now drawing to a close. The archaeological work was commissioned by Skanska on behalf of the Defence Infrastructure Organisation.
Nineteen inhumation graves were recorded. Coins that had been deliberately placed in some of the graves dated the burials to the second half of the 4th century AD, and this late Roman date is supported by radiocarbon dating. The burials were generally orientated NW-SE, with the head commonly at the west end, but are unlikely to be Christian graves, as they displayed a diverse range of rites. Most burials were supine – that is, laid out straight and face up – but one burial had been decapitated, the head being placed at the feet, another burial was crouched, and two others had been laid on their sides.
Analysis of the skeletons showed that the age range of the population buried in the cemetery was unusual. Typically, cemetery populations in Roman Britain are skewed towards older individuals, but at Worthy Down, the population was generally younger, mainly comprising adults below the age of 45. What is more, the analysis of the bones suggested that the individuals had experienced hardships and stress during their lives, with evidence of poor dental health and nutrition, joint and bone disease, and fractures caused by violence or injury.
As fascinating was information about the origins of the individuals. While the body positions initially suggested that the burial rites were rooted in local, pre-Roman traditions, detailed studies indicated a different story.
Analysis of the skulls, using the latest guidelines and standards in osteological studies, showed that one individual had cranial traits consistent with Black ancestry, while another had traits consistent with Black or Asian ancestry. Stable isotope analysis was carried out on six of the skeletons, including the individual with traits of Black ancestry. This form of analysis examines the ratios of chemical elements in the teeth or bones, which can be specific to geographical region and therefore offers clues about where the individuals grew up. The analysis suggested that the six individuals spent their childhoods outside Britain in a region with a warmer, wetter climate, potentially the Iberian peninsula or the southern European or North African side of the Mediterranean.
The results of the analysis were intriguing. It revealed that a group of people buried at Worthy Down had been born outside Britain, and that one and perhaps two individuals had Black ancestry (though had not necessarily grown up in Africa).
How they came to be buried at Worthy Down is uncertain. The Roman town of Winchester (Venta Belgarum) was a cosmopolitan place and home to people from across the Roman world. The Worthy Down cemetery would have been in the countryside, perhaps on land that belonged to a villa estate. There was no suggestion, however, that the people buried there ever enjoyed the comforts or luxuries of a Roman villa. The pathology recorded on the skeletons, revealing a picture of disease, trauma, and premature death, is the sort of evidence typically associated with low-status populations, such as agricultural workers, bonded labourers or enslaved people.
Whether the community arrived in Britain as part of a wider migration of people or were brought by force or through obligation cannot be conclusively addressed. But whatever the case, having settled in the countryside, life for the community buried at Worthy Down was far from a bucolic idyll.