Roman Slave of Britannia, Shackled, And Thrown In A Ditch To Die
Shackled and tossed into a ditch not far from a proper Roman cemetery in England. This is how one British Roman slave died at the hands of Roman invaders. His body is now speaking of severe mistreatment and the brutalities of enslavement in Roman occupied Britain.
We have all had, or have, a boss, family member or business enemy that has made it easy for us to “despise” them. Right? The actual meaning of the word is “to feel contempt or a deep repugnance for,” so perhaps there is no better word to describe how invaders from Rome felt about this Roman slave who they did away with in the most horrific, and hateful way.
Close-up of the lower legs showing iron fetters or shackles fastened around the Roman slave’s ankles, looking south. The Roman slave’s skeleton was found next to a “normal” Roman cemetery in England, which was known as Britannia during the Roman Empire. (Britannia journal)
Shackled Roman Slave’s Burial Tells Us More About Slavery
Archaeologists from the Museum of London Archaeology (Mola) were called in after the man’s bones were unearthed during construction works for a new conservatory at a house in Great Casterton, in Rutland.
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The enslaved man’s ankles were bound together with heavy, locked iron fetters, and he was thrown into a ditch, face first, and left to die in the most undignified manner imaginable. The full study of the body was published on Monday in the journal Britannia which says radiocarbon dating showed the man had died between 226 AD and 427 AD.
The Guardian are headlining this story saying the discovery of a male body with burial shackles in Rutland is the “first of its kind.” Therefore, this unique archaeological find is also "internationally significant."
Archaeologist Chris Chinnock, one of the archaeologists working on the project, told the Guardian that the man’s burial position “is an awkward one.” The skeleton is lying slightly on his right side and his left side and arm elevated on a slope. The slave is estimated to have died aged in his late 20s or early 30s and analysis suggests he led a physically demanding life before he met his grizzly end.
This drawing from the research study shows the position of the Roman slave’s body as it was found and details the shackles and hobnails found at its feet. (Britannia journal)
The First Direct Evidence Of Slavery In Roman Britain
This discovery is providing rare lost insights pertaining to slavery in Roman-ruled Britain, the remote western outpost of the Roman Empire. Chris Chinnock says the brutal discovery “forces us to ask questions that we wouldn’t ordinarily ask.” According to a study undertaken by Kyle Harper it is estimated that as a whole during the period 260–425 AD, “the slave population of the Roman Empire was just under five million, representing 10–15% of the total population of 50–60 million inhabitants.”
However, what is not known is how many people were enslaved in Britain. This discovery represents the “first direct archaeological evidence,” says Michael Marshall, at Mola.
The researchers are calling this the clearest case of a burial of an enslaved individual found in the UK and this “is exceptionally unusual,” said Marshall.
Returning to that word “despise,” Dr Marshal says while it will never be known exactly why the man was killed the team have made some “informed guesses.” The archaeologists say it could be that the dead person was “somebody who had earned the ire of other people,” but equally, it could be that the people who buried him “were tyrannical and awful.”
Rusty old shackles with padlock and padded shackles used for locking up prisoners or slaves between 1600 and 1800 during the slave trade, which is not so different from how Roman slaves in Britannia were treated. In fact, many Roman slaves all over the Empire were treated horribly and not properly buried. (Asmus Koefoed / Adobe Stock)
Shackles Assure Criminality For Eternity
Shackles, or leg-cuffs, are physical restraints used on the ankles of a person to allow walking only with a restricted stride, and they prevent running and physical resistance. All in all, Marshall said this was "an extraordinary” example of mistreatment because shackles were “both a form of imprisonment and a method of punishment, a source of discomfort, pain and stigma which may have left scars even after they had been removed.”
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In conclusion, the researchers point out that there is a Roman cemetery only 60 meters away from where the Roman Slave’s body was found, “suggesting a conscious decision not to bury him properly.” The most probable explanation for this, say the authors of the new paper, is that he was thrown in a ditch with shackles so that he would be branded as a low life criminal in the afterlife too.
Top image: A closeup of the shackles found attached to the Roman slave’s feet in England (Britannia), when this particular slave was tossed in a ditch not far from a “proper” English Roman cemetery. Source: MOLA
By Ashley Cowie
Harper, Kyle 2011 Slavery in the Late Roman World, AD 275–425. Cambridge University Press, 2011, pp. 58–60