Wednesday 15 September 2010

Grisly Vindolanda Discovery



Vindolanda archaeologists are well used to finding thousands of the Roman army’s old weapons, armour, coins and household effects, but they received a nasty shock last week when a volunteer found an almost complete human skeleton buried in a pit in a barrack room floor. Human burials in built-up areas like forts and towns was strictly forbidden in Roman times – the dead had to be interred or cremated in cemeteries on the outskirts – so the archaeologists at first assumed before the complete skeleton was uncovered that the remains must be those of a large dog. But when the complete skeleton was examined by an anthropologist, Dr Trudy Buck, of Durham University, she quickly realised that the bones were those of a young person, possibly a girl, aged between 8 and 10 years old.

The pit in the barracks dated to the mid third century AD, when the Fourth Cohort of Gauls formed the garrison, and the concealment of the body in this fashion was a criminal act – and it is hoped that further study of the remains may reveal the cause of death.

Dr Andrew Birley, Vindolanda’s Director of Excavations commented: “In the 1930’s my grandfather, Eric Birley, found two skeletons concealed below a floor in a civilian building at Housesteads, one of whom had the blade of a knife stuck in the ribs, and the later coroner’s inquest duly produced a verdict of murder by person or persons unknown, shortly before AD367. I’m sorry to say that Vindolanda has probably produced another Roman murder victim, from around the AD 250’s and I shudder to think how this young person met their fate”.

When the forensic examination has been completed at Durham University, the skeleton will be returned to the Vindolanda Museum and will then come under the care and protection of museum curatorial staff. Visitors to the museum will be able to see the mortal remains of the unknown youth, whose fate has only been discovered nearly 1800 years after their death, and the results of the forensic examination next spring.

Patricia Birley: Director, Vindolanda Trust
Since the skeleton was identified as being that of a human - everyone who works at Vindolanda was sworn to secrecy about it. And rightly so.
I got to hear about it just under a week ago. For the last two weeks I have either been guiding there or showing friends around. Until the end of yesterday (as well) I had also been staying at my parents' house looking after my 94.5 years young grandfather. The parental dwelling is a converted Methodist chapel and the small boiler house, at one side of it, contains stones pilfered from Vindolanda hundreds of years ago. I'm convinced that a certain stone, they have, is of Roman origin as well.
As such, last week I got swept up and into Vindolanda skeleton cabin fever.
Everyone is taken aback at the grisly find. It was completely unexpected and it was found in a very unusual place that's why it was mistaken for being a large dog at first. The Romans cremated their dead. It was later under Hadrian that they began to bury their dead along roads away from towns. Sometimes they would be buried with grave goods. Tony Wilmott, the English Heritage Archaeologist, is leading a very interesting project looking at a Roman cemetery up at Birdoswald Fort.
When I heard about the discovery of this skeleton I was shocked myself. I'm still learning a lot about archaeology - absorbing what goes on and how it becomes a science. As far as I know everything is recorded in minute detail...the exact location of the find, what it is, how it can be accurately dated (or not), where it came from, who owned it, who made it, who transported it, how it was transported, et cetera. Every find is given a number, indexed...then the long and costly process of preservation begins. A report has to be written on every find and if we, the public, are lucky - the find then goes on display. Even the display of the object can be a tricky and time consuming process. The cabinets, which are to hold the delicate and fragile Vindolanda writing tablets, are said to cost half a million pounds each.
So there you have a very broad brush explanation of the archaeological process - as I say...I am by no means an expert. I'm trying hard to soak up information about it. I find it fascinating and would like to do some digging at Vindolanda next season if I am lucky. Vindolanda takes on volunteers from all around the world so sometimes it can be a fight for places! My fingers are crossed.
I'm one of many who have been watching the delightful Alice Roberts take us through the different ages of archaeology in the recent "Digging for Britain" series. The shocking discovery of this child at Vindolanda (my own daughter is nearing the age of the child who may have been murdered by person or persons unknown in the mid third century) has made me think long and hard about it all.
We can all get a bit laidback about it: "Oh here is another leather shoe!" or "Here is a bit of Samian ware!" but when the remains of a human being are found in a place where they are not expected to be found...then the reality hits home. I find it difficult to write, think or put some sensible words together regarding what was a brief, horrifyingly expunged human life. It is just truly shocking and incredibly sad that someone so young should have their life ended in dire circumstances.
As I write violent images are conjured up in my head. My first instinct is to go back in time and save that young child's life - ensuring that I take them away from harm. I am incredibly soft at heart and detest any conflict whatsoever. I cry over anything that is remotely emotional. I detest moods or anything that smacks of "the black dog" being in the air. If I sense it, like a hunting dog, I will try to steer other people away from it....whether it is inside me or in others.
As much as I am in thrall to the Roman way of life I realise that there is a side to them that cannot be softened no matter what: Gladatorial combat to the death for public amusement, slavery, war, the imperial army as a fighting force...the list continues. Nevertheless I think we are mesmerised by them because they reflect our way of life far more than the Anglo Saxons, Normans or even the Tudors ever will do. (The Victorians begin to sidle up to us some more - running parallel lives to us.)
But I want to point out that there is an unmistakeable, unstable side in all of us, even soft as I am. The wrong thought, word or deed can pop out when least expected (but I have to emphasize that I do not condone physical or mental violence of any sort!)...

I wonder whether this child ended up being in the "wrong place at the wrong time" receiving a strong cuff, causing him/her to fall over and strike their head and die. (It could have been much worse than this.) Panic ensues: "Quick!" "Cover up the body before anyone sees!" Maybe the body is then placed somewhere where it cannot be found before the cry goes up from the fort village (vicus) that a child is missing. The guilty party or parties feel that they have to take part in those search parties to look for the missing child...going out into the daylight or dark with a hard knot in their stomach(s)...delving into nearby streams or woods............knowing that this time that sickening feeling will be with them for the rest of their lives...and can never be so easily blotted out. Not even with a sacrifice to the gods...
(I want to emphasize over and over again. . . that I do not condone violence to anyone - whether they be a child or adult of any sort. Nevertheless the world is an ambiguous place...look at our fascination with crime and murder books. In my ideal world I would not have a bad thing said about anyone to anybody nor anything bad happen to anyone! I'm also a realist and know that bad stuff happens. Very, very sadly.)

And I feel for Dr. Andrew Birley...the Director of Excavations, under whose watch the skeleton was found...he too has two young children. He too must have that awful churning feeling - thinking about the fate of that vulnerable child. Nevertheless I am a great believer in fate and, perhaps, in this uncovering of the unknown child, in this second millennium, its spirit can, finally, be put to rest. . .


Sage said...

I was fascinated by the news of this, even though I was in the midst of going to the South of France at the time. I have often wondered if skeletons could talk what tales they might tell; although some things are said or rather inferred particularly medical.

I get the same sense of wonder at the peruvian children's mummies, why, how for what purpose did they end up where they did.

Hadriana's Treasures said...

Hello Sage,

Yes...bones and tales. They go hand in hand methinks.

Will pop over to yours soon. I very much keep you in mind when I think about Latin and the OU course. I aim to get to it one of these days. Thank you for that recommendation.

As regards the Vindolanda skeleton/ is extremely sad. The Vindolanda Trust has had to call in the coroner and the police (standard procedure). The Trust also needs the bone specialists to look at the remains as well. It then awaits their final reports...