York University Dig Turns up Fourth Roman Skeleton

A fourth skeleton has been unearthed at the site of York University’s proposed new campus at Heslington East, 3.5 km outside the city of York. The skeleton is well preserved and was found laid with feet pointing north to south, rather than the east-west direction common in Christian burials of that time. It was discovered buried next to a less well-preserved skeleton in a separate grave.

So far little is known about the individual except that it is male. Cath Neal, Field Officer for the Heslington East archaeological project, hopes that the good condition of this skeleton will enable them to discover more about the person’s life. Isotope tests will provide more details about the diet and provenance of the person for example, traces of a Mediterranean diet might indicate that the person had travelled north to reach Roman Eboracum (the modern city of York in North Yorkshire). The skeleton is currently being cleaned and will then be sent to an osteo-archaeologist for further tests.

Coins, pottery and radio-carbon dated items found at the site indicate that it is from the third and fourth centuries AD. The site being currently excavated, which is about 3.5km outside York city centre, is very near to an old Roman road that runs between York and Brough-on-Humber (known as Cade’s road after John Cade the 18th century antiquarian who recognised it as a Roman road).

In addition to the burial, the excavators have found evidence of Roman land divisions and cobbled surfaces near to a Roman masonry building (excavated last year). Neal says: We’re thinking of it as a rural settlement for domestic use. There has been no evidence of any industry here. It is possible that constructions would have been built on top of the cobbled areas and these may have been timber structures. She adds that before the excavation began, the team had no idea that they would come across burial sites. Several roundhouses have also been discovered nearby dating from the bronze and iron ages.

This fourth skeleton and its neighbour are laid out north to south, which may indicate a non-Christian burial although Neal also points out that this could also have simply been to conveniently follow the direction of the ditch in which they

this British grey mass is far younger than the oldest Armenian brain matter which is said to be the oldest in the world, dating back 5,000 years

were buried.

This is the fourth skeleton found on this excavation. On a previous dig a skeleton was found to have suffered from anaemia and tuberculosis in life, while an iron-age skull has also been found at the site by the York Archaeological Trust this contains what is thought to be the oldest brain matter to be discovered in Britain.

Considering that the British Iron Age began in around 800 BC, then this British grey mass is far younger than the oldest Armenian brain matter which is said to be the oldest in the world, dating back 5,000 years.

The site is being excavated in preparation for the University of York’s extended campus. Neal says that prior to the dig it was a green-field site which had been arable for a very long time. She said: This is one of the opportunities that sometimes come as part of development projects. Otherwise we would not have got to excavate here.

Eboracum was founded in around 71 AD, about 10 years after the revolt of Boudica, during the reign of Vespasian. The Ninth Legion built a fortress on the north-east bank of the river Ouse and during the next 300 years the site became a permanent military base as well as a thriving civilian town.

The team working on the site are made up of members of the University of York‘s Department of Archaeology, as well as 31 volunteers including local residents, students from Archbishop Holgate’s School, York and District Metal Detecting Club and members of the Greater York Community Archaeology Project.

Photos by Unversity of York.