Isotope analysis of the tooth enamel of a child whose remains were discovered in a shallow grave near Hadrian’s Wall has shown that he or she was around 10 years old when murdered, but had lived in the Mediterranean region until the age of 7 or 8.
The child’s skeleton was found hidden in the corner of a barrack room floor at Vindolanda Roman fort, Northumberland, where the 4th Cohort of Gauls formed the garrison in the middle of the 3rd Century AD. From the position of the body, the child’s hands were tied.
Dr Trudi Buck, a biological anthropologist at Durham University who led the analysis of the child’s remains, said:
“I think this is definitely a murder or other unnatural death because of the way the body was deposited. This is very circumstantial, but possibly it was hit over the head with something because we have very good preservation of the body down to wrist bones, but not very much of the head. Maybe a harsh blow to the head caused a fractured skull.”
“It turns out the child is not from the local area as I originally assumed, and is not even from Britain. Until the child was at least seven or eight, they have been in southern Europe or even North Africa. This asks lots of questions about who this child was, how did they get from north Africa to northern Britainin the last two years of their life, and then get killed?”
The child could certainly have been a slave. The Romans’ use of slaves was well documented; Julius Caesar once sold the entire population of a conquered region in Gaul, no fewer than 53,000 men, women and children, to slave dealers on the spot. In hard times, it was not uncommon for desperate Roman citizens to raise money by selling their children into slavery.
It is also possible that the child was a family member of a soldier or garrison official. There is evidence that women and children lived at Vindolanda fort.
Dr Buck speculated on the child’s tragic end:
“It is very sad and goes to show human nature does not change. Perhaps there was an accident and the soldiers tried to hush it up. This is a child who was not given any rituals and Romans were very strict on burial in the right place. The body would smell once it started to decompose. There were eight men living in that quite small room. Were they implicated in it?”
Image by the Vindolanda Trust – from the film ‘Edge of Empire’