Identifying the Unidentified

Male slave skeleton with iron fetters
Slaves were used to constructing and maintaining the Roman Empire from its center in Italy across thousands of miles. Several boys and daughters of slave mothers were born in slavery. Others were captives subjugated by the Roman army. Still, others were bought and sold at slave markets.
Throughout the Roman civilization, slaves toiled in every setting, including houses, schools, fields, mines, building projects, and even entertainment.
A few, including the former gladiator Spartacus, even led rebellions against Rome. Yet Roman slaves are nearly invisible in the archaeological record. They were buried without gravestones, had few if any valuables, and were seldom ever mentioned in documents.
Archaeologist Michael Marshall of the Museum of London Archaeology asserts that slavery was a pervasive and endemic practice in Roman society (MOLA). Nonetheless, due to the scarcity of documents and the intricacy of the slave situation, individuals avoided discussing or researching Roman Britain in particular.
The Midlands region of central England’s unique burial may be the first step in changing that. An adult male skeleton was discovered several years ago while building a greenhouse at a residence in the village of Great Casterton. A MOLA team later excavated the skeleton. The man was lying on his right side and had heavy iron fetters secured by a padlock around his ankles. His remains were radiocarbon dated to between A.D. Between 226 and 427,
the Romans controlled Britain up until the very last years. Earlier excavations about 200 feet away had revealed a well-planned third- to fourth-century A.D. cemetery with 133 graves, at least some of which were in wooden caskets. The individual had died between the ages of 26 and 35, but his skeleton had been dumped into a ditch.
The man appeared to have been buried hastily and carelessly based on his twisted body, the awkward placement of his left arm above his head, and the lack of animal tooth marks on his bones if his body had been left out for any amount of time. Although his skeleton remains in good condition and shows that he was the normal height for the time at 5 feet 5 inches, his head is gone, most likely a casualty of current construction activities.

Marshall and MOLA osteoarchaeologist Chris Chinnock immediately speculated about the possibility that the guy had been a slave, making him the first Roman slave to be discovered during an archaeological dig in Britain. But how would they know if there wasn’t a definite mechanism for identifying Roman slavery in the archaeological record? “I immediately thought of slavery, punishment, or anything wicked,” adds Chinnock. Despite the dramatic look of the fetters, they do not conclusively establish that the individual was a slave. Seldom, and never in Roman Britain, have we encountered this kind of shackle anywhere in the Roman world.

Chinnock discovered certain lesions on the man’s ankles and tibias when he analyzed the skeleton to reconstruct the man’s life from his bones, establishing what academics refer to as an autobiography from infections or trauma, but nothing that conclusively linked them to the fetters. He also found a bony spur on the man’s left femur.”The spur is of a sort that can result from a severe injury or from the repetitive actions of an active lifestyle, difficult jobs, or even heavy contact sports,” adds Chinnock.“Nothing screams that this person was enslaved.” Furthermore, the man was buried near a thriving Roman town, and there would have been both slaves and laborers in the surrounding fields, farms, and villages. Marshall continues, “probably the best evidence you could have for the social phenomena of slavery” is the Great Casterton burial. Because we don’t frequently witness the physical signs of slavery, they elicit a strong reaction, according to Chinnock. “He was a real person, and he is important as a person.”

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