Two different discoveries at sites within Roman Britain have raised the question of what burial practices can and can’t reveal about Roman slavery, imprisonment, and violence in the late Roman Empire — and how sensational headlines can mislead us in our understanding of the ancient history of servitude.
The recent unearthings of individuals who died in late Roman-era Britain have piqued public interest. In the urgency to grab press, however, many news outlets have overstated what archaeological evidence can disclose about status. In 2015, a male still wearing iron shackles was discovered at Great Casterton. He has been touted as the “most convincing” case for an enslaved person yet found in Roman Britain. The recently published study of 17 decapitated individuals excavated between 2001 and 2010 at Knobb’s Farm near Cambridge also challenges us to ask what skeletal remains can reveal. While each may contribute to our understanding of Roman servitude, they also disclose how much doubt, inference, and conjecture is wrapped up in the reconstruction of the lives of marginalized people in the ancient Mediterranean.
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The discoveries grabbed international headlines this month after being published in the newest volume of the academic journal Britannia. Romans occupied Britain from the time of the invasion by emperor Claudius’s troops in 43 CE until 410 CE, when Roman troops withdrew. In June of 2015, an archaeological crew from the Museum of London Archaeology company (MOLA) uncovered human skeletal remains of a male fitted with a padlock and iron fetters at Great Casterton in England. Since 44 CE, the site was home to a Roman fort and the surrounding village. The radiocarbon dating placed the shackled individual between the third and early fifth centuries CE (226–427 CE).
Although numerous physical epitaphs and writing tablets have revealed the deep history of servitude in Roman Britain, popular reporting of the Great Casterton discovery has overemphasized what we already know about servitude within Roman Britain in service to the sensational, submitting to the lure of primacy. The Times (UK) ran the headline “Skeleton in shackles may be first evidence of Roman slavery in Britain,” while the site Live Science went with the wildly inaccurate “Shackled skeleton may be first direct evidence of slavery in Roman Britain.”
Unremarked in these accounts was the fact that in 1994, earlier MOLA excavations in Roman London turned up a waxen tablet which recorded a purchase made by an enslaved official in London named Vegetus, who bought an enslaved Gallic woman named Fortunata for 600 denarii (about $12,000 in today’s currency) between 75–125 CE. Similar writing tablets mentioning enslaved individuals engaged in letter writing have also been found at the Roman fort of Vindolanda along Hadrian’s Wall.
The Great Casterton find was also not the first inhumed individual found in leg irons dating to the period of Roman occupation of Britain. Another shackled skeleton was found in Britain at York, a male aged 26–35. Shackled skeletons were also discovered at various other archaeological sites in the ancient Mediterranean. Great Casterton is but the first shackled individual with an accompanying padlock from the Roman period to be discovered within Britain; an important nuance not harped upon in most media coverage.
Another incredible but inconclusive case of Roman era violence is revealed in the recent excavation of 17 decapitated individuals by archaeologists at the Cambridge Archaeological Unit working at three cemeteries in Knobb’s Farm. Some media outlets interpreted the third and fourth century CE remains as a case of enslaved farm workers being put to death en masse. The discovery of decapitated skeletal remains is not unheard of within the ancient Mediterranean. Decapitated bodies make up about two to three% of all burials in Roman Britain. However, the rate at Knobb’s Farm was significantly higher: 33%.
Decapitations are one way for ancient historians to understand the Roman use of capital punishment, but motivation is often hard to determine through osteological evidence alone. The authors of the academic article, Rob Wiseman, Benjamin Neil and Francesca Mazzilli, note the difficulty in interpreting burials with decapitated skeletons:
Interpretations include war, military trophy taking, the execution of slaves or criminals, post-mortem punishment (poena post mortem), human sacrifice, fertility rituals, religious persecution, a continuing Iron Age head cult, a cult imported from the Continent, desecration of an unpopular individual’s remains (damnatio memoriae), a treatment for witches, a way of helping the soul into the afterlife, a way of preventing the soul reaching the afterlife, a means of depriving the dead of their soul and a method for laying the unquiet dead to rest. Plainly, there are conflicting interpretations within this list, and there is nothing approaching a consensus regarding the significance of irregular burial.
Bioarchaeologists often examine bone stress and other physical indicators (e.g. knife marks) which can point archaeologists to firmer answers. Without inscriptions or historical records that firmly mark the servile status of an inhumed individual, however, skeletal evidence can only suggest who these individuals were and why their heads were separated from their bodies in burial.
Despite the uncertainty in interpretation, popular media outlets are often obsessed with peddling articles on Roman servitude. Instead of embracing the inherent doubt and complexity that accompanies most material culture and the broad category of what we might call “unfreedom,” too many perpetuate a binary between “slave” and citizen in antiquity. In antiquity and the Middle Ages, personal liberty existed on a spectrum of what we call unfreedom that spanned the poles from chattel (a person owned as property) to citizen.
The shackling and decapitation of individuals existed since about the Iron Age that preceded the Roman period in Britain. The practice was also common elsewhere in the Mediterranean, although it is often difficult to interpret whether fetters point directly to servitude as chattel, or to other events, such as military captivity, imprisonment, or the late Roman allowance for the chaining of tenant farmers called coloni. The excavation of skeletal remains with fetters is not, in and of itself, definitive evidence that a person was enslaved.
Archaeologist and historians must confess doubt when speaking to the media, but it is also up to responsible journalists not to reduce academic work to the dramatic. This tendency is seen most often in biblical archaeology, which often seeks to tie objects to scriptural actors such as David, Herod, or Jesus — and in so doing, drives illegal collecting practice such as those previously engaged in by the Museum of the Bible.
The use of material to service a historical narrative is seen in classical archaeology as well. About four miles from Athens, at the port city of Phalaeron, 36 of the 80 skeletons found in a mass grave were found bound in iron shackles. Ceramic finds near to the remains indicate they date to 650–625 BCE, which is roughly the time of the Coup of Cylon in Athens. In 632 BCE an Olympic victor and nobleman named Cylon and his supporters attempted to seize control of the polis by storming the Acropolis. Newspapers were quick to tie the attempted tyrant with the shackled bodies in the headlines, even if the Greek archaeologists on site had only presented it as a possible theory.
The mention of Cylon — a man noted by the later Athenian historian Thucydides and the Greek writer Plutarch — attracted readers interested in Athenian political history. However, as bioarchaeologist Kristina Killgrove discussed at the time of the find in 2016: There is no definitive link between the literary reference and the osteological evidence, only hypotheses, essentially educated guesses. Like the Great Casterton and Knobb’s Farm excavations, the “Cylon” burial demonstrates that ancient chains and fetters were used on enslaved persons, but were also used for prisoners of war, captives, and other types of individuals detained in ancient prisons.
Allowing for degrees of unfreedom allows us to move beyond the binary of the “slave” and the citizen when we imagine the marginalized people of the ancient Mediterranean. In comments to Hyperallergic, Mark Letteney, an ancient historian and archaeologist who is now a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Southern California, addressed the difficulties pinpointing status within other spaces that used shackles, such as Roman prisons. Letteney recently co-authored an article identifying a Roman military prison (called a carcer castrensis) in the Roman legionary fortress at Lambaesis, in modern-day Tazoult, Algeria.
Enslaved and incarcerated individuals look the same archaeologically. An example like the person found shackled to the wall in the Villa of the Mosaic Columns at Pompeii is illustrative: This person died in chains, suffocated and ultimately buried under ash as Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE, chained to the wall in an access corridor off the kitchen of an elite mansion. To this person, the distinction between incarceration and enslavement was irrelevant — they were chained to the wall, and died as a result.
Transparency in how we move from discovery to interpretation is often infused with the narratives we wish to create. This is particularly true for the student of slavery in the ancient world.
The archaeology of unfreedom is a slippery business, and requires us to make inferences about the ideology underlying unfreedom in specific instances, so that we can categorize it as “enslavement” or “incarceration” in different cases. But the technology of shackling, by and large, was the same.
Slavery, imprisonment, and capital punishment are vicious and pernicious systems. They existed during the Iron Age prior to the entrance of Rome, were practiced during the Roman occupation of Britain, and continued well after Romans exited the region in 410 CE. It is only rarely noted that enslavement of individuals in Britain continued into the Middle Ages, right up until the late 12th century. Drawing on the matrix of literature, inscriptions, osteological analyses, architectural remains, and archaeological evidence together allows us to create hypotheses that can often change with shifts in technology or new finds.
The press release is a place to embrace doubt and provide more context. In the journal publication of the Great Casterton shackled skeleton, archaeologists Chris Chinnock and Michael Marshall provide an important caveat that journalists need to engage with:
Osteologically, it may be possible to interpret an individual as having led a hard life full of strenuous physical activity. However, directly equating such an interpretation either with forced labour or with the legal status of enslavement is deeply problematic.
But in the movement from the academic article to the press release, this nuance is lost: “The various pieces of evidence present the most convincing case for the remains of a Roman slave yet to be found in Britain.” This statement ignores earlier claims made following a discovery in York, unveiled in 2010, of a burial ground that’s alleged to contain enslaved gladiators. It also passes over reports of “50 graves of slaves” found near an elite Roman villa in southern Britain mere months ago. The mere mention of slavery continues to grab attention, even if the evidence is inconclusive.
Nietzsche famously noted that Christianity went so far as to make doubt a sin. The long history of rejecting doubt in public writing and in headlines in particular has also led to an inability to question historical narratives. In archaeology, this hyperbole often is conducive to securing funding in a time when archaeology and the humanities — in Britain and in the United States — are under increasing threat.
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In an interview with The New York Times last year, Lonnie G. Bunch III, the new secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, discussed the need for museums and scholars to speak to the public about the complexity of historical narratives:
History often teaches us to embrace ambiguity, to understand there aren’t simple answers to complex questions, and Americans tend to like simple answers to complex questions. So the challenge is to use history to help the public feel comfortable with nuance and complexity.
In the United States, complicated or uncertain answers are not a usual part of the public discourse surrounding history — but maybe there is virtue in owning our doubt. Ancient history is full of holes. The public is only rarely told the limits of our historical evidence or the fragility of the stories we tell ourselves about the past. While bringing popular attention to archaeological discoveries remains vital, sensational headlines attempting to one-up each other creates an unsustainable competition within the field. They can also mislead the public in terms of what material remains can and cannot “prove” about the past.