Exotic origins of Roman Londoners revealed by DNA analysis of bones

Museum of London study into skeletal remains of four of the earliest Londoners discovers how they lived – and died

This skull of a Roman Londoner who met a violent end was found in a pit with 38 others.
 This skull of a Roman Londoner who met a violent end was found in a pit with 38 others. Photograph: BBC News/PA

The exotic origins and disastrous teeth of a group of Roman Londoners have been uncovered in a landmark analysis of DNA and other skeletal evidence which revealed their ancestry, hair and eye colouring and the diseases that afflicted them.

Although the four Londoners ranged from a teenage girl buried with a wealth of grave goods to a middle-aged man who may have died in gladiatorial combat or as an executed criminal in the amphitheatre, all suffered from gum disease. None of them were born in London and at least two may have come from north Africa.

The study by experts across many disciplines, for the Museum of London, is the most detailed on a group of remains from anywhere in the former Roman empire.

The most gruesome was the skull of a man found among 38 others in pits along the long-vanished Walbrook river. The evidence suggested that his head was thrown into shallow stagnant water and had been left exposed in the open air, as his jaw had been gnawed by a dog.

He died a violent death after a violent life: he had old, healed injuries including a broken cheekbone, and had suffered many blunt force blows to the face and head around the time of his death. The pits were close to the site of the amphitheatre where he may have died, either as a fighter or executed by the Roman army. Evidence from other sites, including the Crossrail site beside Liverpool Street station, suggests that trophy heads were deliberately exposed as a grotesque warning to enemies.

The man had black hair and brown eyes and was probably not born in Britain. His mother’s family came from eastern Europe or the near east.

The girl, only 14 when she died sometime between AD300 and AD400, was found in a Roman cemetery at Lant Street in Southwark. She was 1.6m tall and blue eyed, but, despite a diet including meat, fish, vegetables and cereals, she had poor teeth and suffered from rickets, a childhood disease caused by vitamin D deficiency.

There was not enough DNA evidence to reveal her hair colour, but she probably grew up in north Africa, and her mother’s ancestry was from eastern Europe or north-east Africa. Despite her youth and fragile health, she was clearly a valued member of her community, and the archaeologists speculate that she could have come to London as a soldier’s daughter or a beloved slave.

She was buried on a bed of chalk, with two glass vessels by her head, and a wooden casket with bronze fittings and bone inlays – carved with an image of Vesta, the goddess of hearth and home – at her feet. She also had a rare folding knife with an ivory handle carved as a leopard or panther, an expensive import possibly made in Carthage, and a bronze key.

The other woman, found at Harper Road, was aged between 26 and 35, and buried in the earliest years of Roman London, possibly at a field boundary, between AD50 and AD70. She would have been a first generation Londoner, alive at the time of the Roman invasion, and may have lived long enough to see the destruction of much of the city in the Boudiccan rebellion of AD70.

She was a white with northern European ancestry, though she was probably born in Britain. She had dark brown hair and brown eyes, and although she appeared physically female, her chromosomes were male (scientists now regard biological sex as a spectrum rather than a simple male/female binary).

She was buried in a wooden coffin with grave goods that made hers a rare and high status burial at a time when cremation was more common. She had a flagon by her head, fine Samian ware dishes by her feet, a torc necklace and a bronze mirror probably imported from Italy. Mirrors were extremely expensive and mirror burials were rare. Some have suggested they were used for divination.

The bones of the fourth individual, a man aged over 45, were found at Mansell Street, which was the eastern boundary of Roman London when he was buried between AD180 and AD400. He had dark brown hair and brown eyes, a skull shape associated with some African populations and DNA suggesting ancestry in Europe or north Africa.

He suffered from two painful and rare conditions, diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis, a form of osteoarthritis that can cause the vertebrae to fuseand is associated with a rich diet and diabetes, and Paget’s disease, which causes weak and brittle bones. He too had poor teeth and gum disease. No grave goods were found with him, but the grave had been disturbed by Victorian builders.

The remains of the four individuals, and the analysis, will be on display in a free exhibition, Written in Bone, at the Museum of London from 27 November.

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