Archaeologists left baffled by grim Roman discovery made in Wales: ‘Quite peculiar’

Roman Britain: Discovery of busts discussed by archaeologist

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According to archaeologists from Rubicon Heritage, the site — known as Five Mile Lane — has a history of human usage that dates back to the Stone Age. Five Mile Lane was first excavated back in the 1960s, when experts unearthed the remains of both a series of Iron Age roundhouses dating back to between 800BC and AD43, along with the “Whitton Lodge” Roman villa and farmstead data to around 43–410AD. However, a recent archaeological survey undertaken in advance of road improvement works on the A4226 has revealed that the site southwest of Cardiff held far more traces of history. The site, the team said, was likely well-used because it is both “rich farming land” suitable for both cultivating crops and keeping animals, and located within miles of the sea.

Mark Collard — archaeologist and Rubicon Heritage’s excavation project director — told Live Science that the suspected mercenary had a “quite peculiar” burial.

He added: “It’s in the middle of a field near the Roman villa looking out over the valley and over the sea. It’s a great place to be buried.”

The man, who would have stood at 5’9” and was in his early 20s, appears to have suffered from a middle-ear infection that may have spread to his skull and could have accounted for his death.

He was buried face-down in a nailed-shut wooden coffin, which also held hobnail boots, a long iron sword and a silver crossbow brooch.

The latter two artefacts link the individual to the Roman military of the late fourth and early fifth centuries AD.

During this time period, as Roman control in Britain began to wane, the empire recruited mercenaries to fight off invaders.

Based on his brooch, which bears similarities to those found on continental Europe, the team believe that the man was employed in this fashion — although he could also be an invader who seized control of the villa. The team hopes genetic analysis will clarify the situation.

The man’s apparent victim was also in his 20s and was buried with his severed head placed at his feet in a coffin, or on a wooden board, with a shroud draped over the top.

Decapitations were not uncommon during the Roman period — accounting for around two to three percent of all burials — and are believed to be associated with executions.

It is possible, Mr Collard said, that beheadings were thought to separate the soul from the body, or to prevent the deceased from rising again.

The earliest evidence for human occupation along Five Mile Lane comes from flint tools that would have been used by hunter-gatherer populations during the Mesolithic, or Middle Stone Age Period, between 10,000–6,000 years ago.

Mr Collard said these flints “show that Mesolithic people were going through the area”.

He added that these peoples were most likely hunting animals like aurochs, the wild ancestor of the domestic cattle familiar to us today.

Moving forward in time to the Neolithic, the “New Stone Age” spanning from 4,000–2,500 BC, archaeologists at Five Mile Lane believe that the site played host to some form of communal ritual structure, as evidenced by aligned post holes found in the sediments.

In association with these building traces, the team also unearthed the remains of a person who had been buried in a crouched position.

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While Mr Collard and his colleagues report having found several roundhouses and mound burials dating back to the Bronze Age, they said that settlement in the area only began to properly kick off during the Iron Age.

At this time, the area would have been dotted with small timber-framed, thatched houses — each less than one mile apart — between areas of cultivated farmland.

Mr Collard said that the discovery of the farms, which had both domesticated animals and grain processing tools, “shows how dense the settlement was”.

As befits the time period, he added, the researchers have also uncovered the remains of iron tools such as knives from these sediments.

Oddly for a Christian time, the burial mounds appear to have been reused in the Early Medieval Period, the team noted, with some 450 people’s remains recovered from the site from then and the Bronze Age together.

By the Roman period, when the site lay near a busy road known as “the highway”, it seems that the wooden roundhouses had given way to those built in the rectangular, stone style favoured by the invaders from Italy.

Mr Collard said: “We don’t know if it was the same owners or the same family, but we like to think that the continuity was there.

“They just took on with new fashions and assimilated into the Roman Empire.”

To test this theory, he added, Rubicon Heritage are now looking to compare traces of human DNA extracted from the various burials across the site for signs of family connections.

The full findings of the archaeological survey are to be published in a peer-reviewed monograph. An eBook about the site can be downloaded from the Rubicon Heritage website.

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