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Human remains are Durham’s earliest known resident.          Source: Durham University

University Dig Unearths Durham’s Earliest Known Resident

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Archaeologists working in an English town have unearthed human remains that could date back to over 2000 years ago. It is believed they are the remains of the earliest known resident of the city of Durham.  The bones are transforming historians' understanding of the history of this part of Britain and are shortly going on public display.

The remains came from an archaeological site that was found during construction work in central Durham, which is a historic city in the North of England. The project was building student accommodation on one of the oldest streets in the city. The developers were obliged to carry out an archaeological dig at their site as part of the local planning laws. Therefore, archaeologists from the nearby University of Durham investigated the site, between 2016 and 2017.

Archaeologists excavating the site in Durham, where the human remains were found. (Durham University)

Archaeologists excavating the site in Durham, where the human remains were found. ( Durham University )

Human Remains Point to Iron Age Burial

During their work, they came across some medieval garbage pits and street fronts from the 18 th century. They also unearthed in a shallow pit, what appeared to be human bones that bore the tell-tale signs of having been cremated. The BBC quotes archaeologist Natalie Swann, from Durham University, as stating that “although we knew when we discovered the bones that they'd been cremated, we couldn't be sure they were human until we tested them in the lab.” Archaeologists had found fragments of the skull, shin, and from the end of the hand of a person.

Carbon dating of the fragments was possible, and they revealed that they date from 90 BC to AD 60. BBC  quotes Swann as saying that “when we got the radiocarbon dates back, we were all very surprised to find how early they were.” The dating of the bone fragments means that the person is the oldest known resident of the historic city. Experts were sadly unable to find the sex or the age of the deceased.

Some of the human remains discovered beneath the student accommodation. (Durham University)

Some of the human remains discovered beneath the student accommodation. ( Durham University )

History of the City Transformed

Durham was widely viewed as only developing in the early Middle Ages when it became an important Christian ecclesiastical center.  The discovery of cremated human remains from the Iron Age , means that this is no longer the case. Based on the bones it appears that people were living here long before the medieval period. BBC quotes Swann as saying that “this adds to our knowledge of the history of Durham, showing that people were living and dying here long before the well-known medieval occupation of the city.”

The find indicates that the location was settled even before the invasion of Britain by the Romans (55 AD).  Therefore, it is possible that the deceased person may have been a member of a Celtic tribe, based on the dating of the remains. The state of the bones meant that it was not possible to extract DNA for analysis, which could have provided researchers with more information about the dead person.

Another shot of the human remains unearthed at the site. (Durham University)

Another shot of the human remains unearthed at the site. ( Durham University )

Iron Age Settlement?

The remains were found in Claypath Street, which was once in the heart of medieval Durham. The Daily Mail reports that “initial research had suggested the site had been occupied for 800 years before the recent revelation puts that figure back to at least 1,960 years ago.” This adds to the body of evidence that Durham is much older than previously thought.

The BBC reports that the bone fragments have been deemed “too small and vulnerable to be displayed publicly,” but their discovery is explored along with other finds in an exhibition at the local university’s Museum of Archaeology. This will introduce the public to the city’s first known resident as well as precious artifacts from the Middle Ages. The exhibition presents the history of the street, where the bones were found, from over 2000 years ago.

Top image: Human remains are Durham’s earliest known resident.          Source: Durham University

By Ed Whelan

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