A potentially-interesting find due to waterworks construction:
A 2,000-YEAR-OLD human skeleton has been unearthed alongside Iron Age artefacts near Tewkesbury.
Archaeologists uncovered signs of the ancient Roman villa in a field on the edge of Bredon’s Norton. It is thought the finds could be of national importance.
Metal detector hunts in recent years had led historians to suspect an ancient community might be found there.
That was confirmed when contractors who were laying a new water pipeline began digging.
Senior project manager Stuart Foreman is leading a team of archaeologists on a six-week excavation at the site.
Mr Foreman, of Oxford Archaeology, said thousands of pieces of masonry, nails, tiles, pottery and clothing will have been unearthed by the time the project is complete.
The area being examined is 200 metres long and 15 metres wide.
He said: “Whenever you find a new villa, it’s of national importance. It’s pretty unusual to find a new villa that hasn’t been recognised before. It’s an important local centre.”
He said large pieces of masonry and flagstone flooring had been found and it was well preserved.
He said: “Fragments of stone peg-tiles from the roof and sections of painted wall plaster indicate a building of high quality and status.
“The footings survive to a height of nearly 1m cut into the hillside.”
He said it did not rank as highly as the famous Roman Villa at Chedworth, near Cheltenham, but was still an important addition to a cluster of villas found in the Cotswolds and upper Thames valley.
Experts estimate that the villa is more than 1,700 years old.
They do not know yet whether the skeleton is of a male or female but believe it is at least 2,000 years old. It has been taken to Oxford to be analysed.
As is typical, when life is most hectic comes the time when the most interesting bloggables start flashing past me on Twitter, Facebook, and in email. I can’t get to them all today, but I do want to quickly comment an item from the Telegraph regarding possible evidence of infanticide associated with remains of a Roman ‘brothel’ in Buckinghamshire:
An extensive study of a mass burial at a Roman villa in the Thames Valley suggests that the 97 children all died at 40 weeks gestation, or very soon after birth.
The archaeologists believe that locals may have been killing and burying unwanted babies on the site in Hambleden, Buckinghamshire.
Unwanted pregnancies were common in Roman brothels due to little contraception and Romans also considered infanticide less shocking than it is today.
Infants were not considered to be human beings until about the age of two and were not buried in cemeteries if they were younger than that.
Consequently, infant burials tended to be at domestic sites in the Roman era.
“The only explanation you keep coming back to is that it’s got to be a brothel,” Dr Jill Eyers, of Chiltern Archaeology, told the BBC.
Experts say that the number of children killed at Yewden villa in Hambleden is unusually large.
“There is no other site that would yield anything like the 97 infant burials,” said Dr Simon Mays, a skeletal biologist at English Heritage’s Centre for Archaeology, who has been investigating the finds.
There is possibly some compression of thought going on here, either by the archaeologist or the journalist or both. The brothel suggestion is likely connected to a similar sort of find at Ashkelon over a decade ago, although in that situation the remains were found in the drainage system beneath a bathing complex. But there seems to be a bit of circularity going on here, no? A pile of dead babies suggest a brothel nearby. A brothel nearby suggests the babies must have been unwanted, and so killed on purpose. What I don’t understand is why if these babies were unwanted ‘ab initio’ as it were, why they wouldn’t simply have been aborted. It’s not as if the ancient Greeks and Romans weren’t aware of abortion.
The babies were all found to be of roughly the same size, suggesting systematic infanticide at birth rather than death from natural causes, which would have struck infants at different ages, Dr Mays added.
… which is not really the Roman practice; not sure about native Briton-types. As far as we can tell from our sources, unwanted Roman infants were “exposed” and wouldn’t likely have been buried at all if they died.
The Hambleden site, close to the River Thames, was excavated 100 years ago and identified as a high status Roman villa.
Alfred Heneage Cocks, an archaeologist, reported the findings in 1921. His report, along with photographs, and hundreds of artefacts, pottery and bones were recently rediscovered at Buckinghamshire County Museum.
The records gave precise locations for the infant bodies, which were hidden under walls or buried under courtyards close to each other.
The remains are now being tested for the first time by English Heritage.
The team plans to carry out DNA tests on the skeletons in a bid to establish their sex and possible relationship to each other.
The Hambleden investigation features in a new BBC TV archaeology series, Digging for Britain presented by Dr Alice Roberts, to be broadcast on BBC Two in July and August.
An important detail which is left out of all this is the date of the Hambledon site … presumably this is the Yewden Roman Villa, as the Mill End Villa doesn’t seem to have been excavated. A page on the site tells us the date: the site was used from the first to the fourth centuries A.D.. Hopefully there is enough information in the notes from the original excavation (1912) or datable organic materic material to establish some dates for the remains. 97 infant burials sounds like a lot, but when you spread it over three centuries it isn’t so sensational. As such, while an epidemic seems unlikely,depending on how the remains are dated, one could speculate that these are all stillborn remains …
UPDATE (06/27/10): David Keys in the Independent provides a good summary of the possible explanations:
Some argue that the Hambleden complex might have been a Roman imperial agricultural administrative and processing centre serving a relatively large area. The dead infants could represent a mixture of still births, natural perinatal deaths and infanticide victims, born to women employed at the centre. Some of the infants may have been born with deformities – a fact that would have made them particularly vulnerable to infanticide.
Some archaeologists have suggested the infants were children of prostitutes serving the potentially large staff at the complex, although it would be archeologically unprecedented to find a brothel in a non-urban context.
Alternatively, the site could have had a partly religious function with the infants being the subjects of illegal rituals or even human sacrifice. Certainly newborn infants were sometimes buried as ritual foundation deposits in Roman Britain – though never in such large numbers.
… and a tip o’ the pileus to Terrence Lockyer for drawing our attention to the excellent blog post on the subject over at Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives (Rosemary Joyce), which delves into the claims about lack of contraception and the identity of the site as a brothel:
For some background on prostitution in the ancient world:
- Baby deaths link to Roman ‘brothel’ in Buckinghamshire | BBC (includes a nice little video)
- Discovery of babies’ skeletons exposes the dark side of life in Roman Britain | Independent
- Romans killed dozens of unwanted babies at English ‘brothel’ | Daily Mail
But we have to wait a while for the television program:
A GLIMPSE of life under the Romans has been unearthed by TV star Tony Robinson and his Time Team archaeologists in the village of Castor.
Filming in the historic grounds of St Kyneburgha Church for the BBC show, to be broadcast next spring, the team made great strides in uncovering the mysterious past of the site.
Guided by previous excavations carried out by 19th century archaeologist Edmund Artis, who is buried at the church, Mr Robinson and his team were delighted to discover the remains of what could be a plush Roman villa dating back to the second or third century.
The team has been digging since Tuesday but the biggest discovery happened yesterday lunchtime, when a mosaic floor was discovered beneath some 17th century graves.
The finding certainly pleased Mr Robinson, who said: “I was initially surprised at how little we were finding, given the history of the site, but it was just a case of digging a little deeper.
“The mosaic does seem to back up previous suggestions that there was a grand Roman building or set of buildings.
“The problem with Castor is that a lot of its history is a bit foggy and nobody knows the complete picture, but we’re hoping we will be able to contribute to a greater understanding about its past.”
Among the discoveries made were several walls which suggest that the area was used as a private complex by a wealthy Roman citizen, complete with Roman baths near Peterborough Road.
Time Team archaeologist Phil Harding was working on unearthing the mosaic flooring in the graveyard and said there was evidence previous gravediggers could not find their way through.
He said: “We’ve been finding a lot of bones in the trench and it seems like gravediggers were finding it impossible to dig past the mosaic and so were just burying people three feet deep.”
Current church gravedigger David Reed said he was pleased that the dig had been successful. He said: “It’s nice to see so much history in this area being brought out into the open.”