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One of the Roman slave skeletons alongside a pot found at the burial site in Somerset, England. Source: Wessex Archaeology

50 Roman Slaves Found Buried with ‘Care’ in England

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A Roman slave burial ground has been found near what was once a great ancient villa in Britain. Many of the graves are very unusual, and they provide a glimpse into the impact of Rome on the local Briton’s culture and beliefs. This find also allows researchers to better understand the nature of slavery in Roman Britain.

The cemetery was found in Somerton, Somerset, southwest England.  The site was unearthed during the construction of a new school by workers. They alerted the relevant authorities and it was investigated by the South West Heritage Trust.  Researchers, based on the discovery of shards of pottery and coins, established that it was a Romano-British cemetery that dated back to the 1 st century AD. It was found near the outhouses of a great villa that once stood in the area.

Strange Burials

In total, some 50 Roman slave graves were unearthed, and they were very different from the burial practices that took place before the invasion. The deceased were placed in the ground with great care, in graves that were capped and sealed with slabs.  In one burial, these slabs were used to create a box-like feature, known as a cist, in which the dead person was placed before being buried. Steve Membery, who works with the South West Heritage Trust and who took part in the dig, told The Guardian that “they’ve actually built these graves. There’s been a lot of more care taken over these.”

One of the Roman slave skeletons in the stone coffin structure unearthed at the burial site in Britain.        ( Wessex Archaeology )

At first, the archaeologists believed that the dead were members of the local elite. This was on account of the great care taken over their burial and the fact that the cemetery was once near a villa complex. Moreover, the presence of grave goods, such as a coin from the reign of Emperor Vespasian would suggest that they were affluent during their lives. It was initially assumed that the dead came from the villa and were members of the local Celtic population who had been Romanized.

Coins found at the Roman slave burial site dating back to Emperor Vespasian. ( Wessex Archaeology )

The Graves of 50 Roman Slaves

Now it is believed that all of those buried in the cemetery were members of the lowest class. Membery, a historic environmental officer with the trust, told Live Science that “we are very confident that all the burials are people who worked on a Roman villa estate.” They were almost certainly agricultural workers who labored on the estate of the villa owners.  Some more may have been domestic servants in the villa.

The exact status of the dead is not known, but it is unlikely that they were paid for their work. Membery explained that “many may have technically been slaves,” according to Live Science .  While others may have been dependent on their masters who lived in the villa and who had a status that was only a little better than that of slavery. In the Roman Empire , slavery was pervasive, and it took many forms and had different characteristics.

One of the Roman slave skeletons in the stone coffin structure with a pot (at bottom of the shot) unearthed at the burial site in Somerset, England. (Wessex Archaeology)

One of the Roman slave skeletons in the stone coffin structure with a pot (at bottom of the shot) unearthed at the burial site in Somerset, England. ( Wessex Archaeology )

Insights into Ancient Roman Slavery

The fact that agricultural laborers and servants were buried with care and even grave goods, may tell researchers much about their lives. Clearly some people, possibly their family members, went to great efforts to see that they were given a decent burial. Additionally, the grave goods found with some of them, indicate that the slaves may even have been able to accumulate personal wealth.

Some very small nails were found in a number of the graves. These are believed to have come from hobnailed boots, which long ago decayed in the earth. These boots would have been needed by slaves and others when working in the fields. This could indicate that, if as believed they were Roman slaves, their masters provided them with footwear and clothing. 

A local representative Councilor Faye Purbrick told The Guardian that “we will be able to understand so much more about the lives of Roman people in Somerton thanks to these discoveries.” The cemetery is providing researchers with a unique insight into the lives of Roman slaves. These discoveries reveal that their conditions may have been better than often assumed. All the retrieved artifacts from the Somerton site are going to be the subject of further scientific analysis. A full report on the site will be published in the future.

Top image: One of the Roman slave skeletons alongside a pot found at the burial site in Somerset, England. Source: Wessex Archaeology

By Ed Whelan

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