Gloucester's Roman Mass Grave Skeletons Were Plague Victims

By 24 Hour Museum Staff | 29 April 2008
an overhead shot of archaeologists working to uncover skeletons form a pit

Archaeologists work to uncover the Roman mass grave in Gloucester during 2005. © Oxfod Archaeology

A mass Roman grave, discovered in Gloucester in 2005, may have contained the victims of an acute disease of epidemic proportions, possibly plague.

This is the startling conclusion to a new report by Oxford Archaeology and archaelogical consultancy CgMs, who have been conducting an 18-month programme of scientific study on the grave, which contained around 91 skeletons.

The discovery of a mass grave of Roman date is almost unparalleled in British archaeology and archaeologists now believe the remains were of individuals who had been thrown in over a short period of time during the late 2nd or early 3rd century AD.

a photo of skeletons in an excvated pit

The grave contained around 91 skeletons. © Oxford Archaeology

“The skeletons of adult males, females, and children were lying in a very haphazard fashion, their bones completely entangled, reflecting the fact that they had been dumped, unceremoniously in a hurried manner,” explained Louise Loe, Head of Burial Archaeology at Oxford Archaeology.

“When we studied the skeletons we were looking for evidence, such as trauma, that would explain why they had been buried in such a way. In fact, very little trauma was found on the skeletons and there were no diseases that would explain why they had been singled out for this treatment.”

The unusual arrangement of the skeletons led archaeologists to conclude that the individuals were the victims of an epidemic that did not discriminate against age or sex.

a photo of a carved tomb lid with a face of young child and an inscription

The discovery of two 1st century sculptured and inscribed tombstones enabled the team to make a direct connection between documentary evidence and the archaeological record of the site. © Oxford Archaeology

The report, ‘Life and Death in a Roman City’, puts forward the theory that the cause of death may have been the Antonine plague, an outbreak perhaps of smallpox that swept across the Roman Empire between AD 165 and 189.

Plague, which kills quickly, tends not to leave marks on bone and therefore it is not surprising that evidence for disease is lacking on these skeletons. It is hoped that future tests on the bones for DNA will confirm this.

A further exciting discovery of two 1st century sculptured and inscribed tombstones enabled the team to make a direct connection between documentary evidence and the archaeological record of the site.

a photo of a jumble of skeletons in a pit

The unusual arrangement of the skeletons led archaeologists to conclude that the individuals were the victims of an epidemic. © Oxford Archaeology

One tombstone was used for a 14 year old slave. The other was for ‘Lucius Octavius Martialis, son of Lucius, of the Pollian voting tribe, from Eporedia, soldier of the Twentieth Legion.’

The legion was stationed at Gloucester until the 70s AD, and known to have soldiers from Eporedia, modern Ivrea north of Turin. The mass grave population may have been civilian descendants of the Roman military.

Only two other Mass Roman graves have been reported in the UK, but their identification has never been confirmed and neither have been studied.

Find out more about the work of Oxford Archaeology at www.thehumanjourney.net and CgMs at www.cgms.co.uk.

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