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Five things you can learn from a Roman skeleton

The stories of Roman lives are written their bones: diet, disease, childbirth and trauma all leave their mark. Individual skeletons can tell rich tales, but the fullest information comes from large groups, when we can look at populations. So what can we learn about about a Roman community from their skeletons?

Five things you can learn from a Roman skeleton
The stories of Roman lives are written their bones: Roman skeleton found on
 at York University campus [Credit: University of York/PA]
Whether they were a slave

Slavery was ubiquitous in the Roman world, and some of its agonies are preserved on skeletons: those working in and living near Roman mines in Jordan were exposed to lead and copper at levels that would have been toxic, and caused a range of illnesses. The remains of people who were likely to have been slaves have also been found still wearing iron shackles, for instance in a subterranean room of a villa in Pompeii, and near the silver mines of Laurion in Roman-era Greece.

Whether they played sports

Among the human remains from ancient Herculaneum, which was destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius at the same time as Pompeii, were a possible boxer, with typical fractures to his hands and nose, and a javelin-thrower whose bones reveal the same elbow problems experienced by modern athletes.

How they died, who they loved

At Dura-Europos in Syria, remains of Roman and Sasanian troops trapped in a siege mine beneath the walls of the ancient city reveal the brutal and violent reality of ancient conflict, including gas warfare. In the nearby cemetery, families were buried together in underground tombs, with women and children placed together.

Five things you can learn from a Roman skeleton
A well preserved Roman skeleton from the 2nd-4th century, found in a lead coffin 
near Aldborough, North Yorkshire [Credit: Christopher Thomond/Guardian]
Where people came from

Even places like Roman Britain were diverse. Scientific methods (such as isotope analysis), as well as the study of graves and grave goods (the objects buried with a body) can tell us where a person was likely to have come from, or where they had links to. For instance, work on the cemeteries of Roman York has shown that people buried there came from other places in Britain, and much further afield in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.

The extent of childhood illnesses

In the Roman world, children often didn’t make it to adulthood. Roman cemeteries such as Poundbury in Dorset include many children with rickets, scurvy and anaemia – survival rates were staggeringly low by modern Western standards. Infant and early childhood mortality was high in the Roman period, with 45% of children unlikely to survive past five years of age.

So we can learn a lot about how a Roman may have lived from her or his remains, but, while skeletons are biological, bodies are cultured and contextual; they can be modified to fit ideals of beauty, status, or gender. Ultimately, Roman skeletons tell us that culture is a significant factor in determining difference: underneath it all, we’re pretty much the same collection of 206 interlocking parts.

Dr Jen Baird and Dr Tim Reynolds from the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, Birkbeck College, University of London, will be talking in depth about Roman skeletons at a Guardian Live/Birkbeck event on 21 November.

Authors: Dr Jen Baird and Dr Tim Reynolds | Source: The Guardian [November 14, 2015]

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