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Mute witness -- Ancient Britons took the story of Rome's rise and fall to the grave


The 1,400 or so inhabitants of Roman Britain who were laid to rest some 17 centuries ago in the suburban cemetery near the little town of Dorchester appear to have led remarkably peaceful lives. As their excavated remains reveal, a single infant buried there may have died from battering, but there is no other evidence of violence. The injuries most people suffered were those of wear and strain, sustained over long years of grinding labor. Adults in this provincial trading community 120 miles southwest of London lived with arthritis and sore backs, judging from the state of their joints. The noticeably arthritic spines and shoulders of Dorchester's men point to heavy work from early adolescence to 40 or 45—which was old age in this late-Roman period. The joints in their upper bodies show the wear of digging and lifting, of driving carts and working plows.

Women, for their part, lived with aching knees. The state of their leg joints suggests that they spent long hours squatting, probably while grinding grain at rotary querns. Men and women were set apart by the labors they performed each day and by their small physical agonies.

The period that these people lived in—primarily the last decade or two of the third century A.D. and the first six of the fourth—constituted the most Roman moment in British history. Roman culture and the Roman state had largely been embraced, or imposed, to varying degrees, across Britain. Most people had some access to a profusion of British-produced, Roman-style goods—bronze brooches, hobnail boots, wheel-thrown pots—thanks to a Roman economy grounded in mass-production, organized industries, an abundance of low-value currency, and, of course, peace. At the very center of this economy and culture were Dorchester and other unpretentious market towns like it, a class of communities known to historians and archaeologists as "small towns." With their forges, peddlers, and barns, their repair shops, day laborers, and artisans, they turned the agriculture of the British countryside into cash, into taxes, and into manufactured goods.

No texts survive to tell us how the men and women of this world lived. But the contours of work, of health, and of sorrow can be read in their skeletons, excavated in burial grounds like those of Dorchester.

Children died in great numbers in fourth-century Dorchester—not newborns so much as toddlers. Babies who survived early childhood often lived through adolescence, but death again took many inhabitants, both men and women, in their early twenties and thirties. Late-Roman Dorchester was overrun with children and adolescents. Many people would have been in their twenties, fewer in their thirties, and even fewer in their forties. Still, there were a small number of old people there: Some were well into their eighties when they died.

Infectious disease doubtless played a part in the heartbreakingly early deaths. There were periodic outbreaks of smallpox around Dorchester, and some people suffered from tuberculosis. But, for the most part, shortened lives were the result of long-term, low-grade malnutrition—not from starvation, but rather from a flaw in the way food was prepared. Children grew slowly (the growth of young children lagged two years behind 21st-century children), and puberty came late, at 15 or so.

photo of skull and teethThose who lived to adulthood had light bones and poor teeth, classic signs of malnutrition. Lead poisoning was the major culprit. Fruit juice concoctions and wine drinks, taken daily, were prepared in leaded vessels, in particular pewter, which was much loved in late-Roman Britain; the acidity of the drinks leached out the lead, producing an insidious brew. Once weaned, many babies were poisoned by food lovingly prepared in pewter.

Lead continued to dog those who survived infancy, bringing on digestive troubles, colic, and diarrhea. These maladies, in turn, resulted in the poor absorption of nutrients from food and brought on a host of more serious complaints: gout, osteoporosis, leg ulcers, and infertility. People also suffered from parasites, in particular roundworm and whipworm. This, too, would have contributed to chronic malnutrition and anemia, especially among young children and women.

And so the people eventually buried at Dorchester, like many others in Roman Britain, passed their days in discomfort and in pain. Everyone must have been a little cranky from stomach ailments, from arthritis and from gout, and bad-tempered because of head lice. They must also have been habitually saddened by the deaths of their children and their friends, deaths brought on not so much by calamity or plague as by chronic ailments they couldn't explain.

In appearance, the people buried in Dorchester's cemetery were exceptionally homogenous. Almost to a person, they had smaller heads and shorter facial heights than Britain's modern population, yet because they ate such coarsely ground grain, they also had large, powerful jaws, and would appear heavily jowled to us.

Very nearly every man stood between 5'4" and 5'8" (only one man buried at Dorchester was over six feet tall and only one was under five feet), and most women were between 5'2" and 5'5". The hair of a few was preserved because their coffins had been packed with plaster. This rare survival suggests that hair in and around Dorchester was neatly combed and dressed with oil. The men wore theirs long at the neck and short at the crown. One older man had even dyed his hair with henna, and combed it to cover his bald spot.

The women wore their tresses coiled or braided in buns and twists, and one woman's coif was so elaborate she could not have created it without help. This woman was not the only person buried at Dorchester who looks to have been a member of the elite. A number of men and women clustered in family groups were buried in a more elaborate fashion than most. Some were laid to rest in lead coffins, others inside stone mausoleums. One group of people was especially tall and robust, and would have stood out physically in and around Dorchester. Their bones do not exhibit the same wear patterns as most, but instead bear marks of the leg injuries and spiral fractures associated with that perennially aristocratic pastime, horseback riding.

In the first and second centuries, small towns like Dorchester had been insignificant. Unlike the great public towns implanted in the first century by Roman soldiers and administrators—London, for example, or Canterbury, Bath, and York—these smaller settlements developed haphazardly and on their own. All were founded on Roman roads, most at their junctions, and many developed near important river crossings. There were 70 or 80 of these towns by the late-Roman period, most sited within 10 miles of one another. They were creatures of local trade, agriculture, and manufacturing, rather than of the wider, more cosmopolitan world, but they were of crucial importance to peasants and local farmers, and to the bailiffs of great rural estates. Indeed, these small towns were the only urban communities most people living in Roman Britain would normally visit. By 300 A.D. they were the very heart of Roman Britain's economy and culture.

Yet small towns rarely figure in contemporary descriptions of late-Roman Britain, and we only know of their importance and understand how they looked and functioned because of archaeological investigations. We know from excavations that they were usually a little ramshackle. Straggling along a main road, they lacked the carefully laid out grid plans of Britain's more self-consciously classical cities. Aqueducts, baths, and forums, like the ones found in London, Bath, and York, were almost never found within them, and the rich usually chose to live elsewhere. Still, life was modestly Roman in these small towns, albeit with a thick British overlay. Temples and cult centers, for example, were usually built to suit native, rather than Mediterranean, tastes. Many were constructed from timber, rather than stone, and they sometimes accommodated native rites such as dog sacrifice.

The intrusion of the larger Roman state into these communities was fairly limited. The most obvious Roman buildings were the grubbier manifestations of Empire: a waystation for the imperial postal system, or a state granary, serving as a collection point for the late-Roman tax-in-kind, the annona militaris. Some small towns may have housed a few soldiers as well to guard state storehouses or to act as official escorts for imperial transports.

The overwhelming majority of buildings within these small towns took the form of "stripbuildings," which functioned simultaneously as houses and workshops. These were the same basic structures found throughout the Roman world, although they were usually built of native timber and thatch, rather than of stone and plaster as in Rome.

Each stripbuilding had a large front section facing the street and open to it, which could be closed to passersby with shutters. The front portion could serve as commercial space for bakers, smiths, or builders, or as ateliers for craftsmen working in pewter, bone, leather, or glass. At the back of each stripbuilding were small, sometimes quite comfortable living quarters, complete with glazed windows and tiled floors. The plots on which they sat, like the structures themselves, were long at the sides and narrow toward the street, and many had cobbled yards, animal pens, vegetable patches, and even ovens at their backs. Indeed, late-Roman small towns would not have looked so very different from the small towns of late-medieval England, with their narrow tenements, their crowd of storefronts, and their kitchen gardens.

Life in Britain could have continued on like this for centuries. But a series of small disasters, each one compounding the effects of the last, ruined the region's economy, fracturing the peace and requiring resources that neither Britain nor the Roman Empire at large could afford.

The troubles began quietly, almost imperceptibly, with the odd barbarian raid along the coast and the occasional incursion from north of Hadrian's Wall, the great stone and turf revetment marking the northern edge of Roman Britain. In particular it was the Scotti, the Scots settled in Ireland, and the "Painted People," the Picts of highland Scotland, who were increasingly restive.

Surrounded by the sea and protected by Hadrian's Wall, Britain had been less troubled in the third and early fourth centuries than most places in the Empire. But construction of new or improved defenses along the coast and at the wall in the early decades of the fourth century, and signs of a flurry of military building in the 330s, suggest that Britain was beginning to have more trouble with Picts and Scots than it had encountered in the past. What began as isolated and only locally troubling incursions intensified early in 343, when the problem became so grave that the emperor Constans and an expeditionary force chanced a risky Channel crossing in midwinter to shore up Britain's defense.

In 360, Britain once again faced a serious incursion. In that year the Picts and the Scots embarked on a full season of hit-and-run raids. As in 343, the danger was acute, and Rome's greatest general was sent to Britain with a large field army. Then, in 367, Britain confronted a much more serious threat, a bona fide invasion, described by the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus as a "Barbarian Conspiracy," in which the Picts, the Scots, and the Attacotti from the Outer Isles raided Britain in concert, while Saxons and Franks attacked the coast of Gaul. Hadrian's Wall was overrun and defenses along the North Sea collapsed. Once again Britain's own garrison had to be supplemented with troops brought in from afar, and it took two years for the commanding general to restore order and rid the countryside of the small war bands and motley groups of army deserters absconding with cattle, loot, and civilian captives.

In the face of these troubles, urban communities in Roman Britain, large and small, began constructing stone walls. Labor and funds were also expended on repairing and modifying Hadrian's Wall in the north. Inscriptions found along the wall record that gangs of laborers were provided by towns hundreds of miles to the south at what must have been enormous effort and expense.

Because military costs were mounting across the whole of the Roman Empire, there was little state aid for such projects, so local communities had to shoulder much of the burden themselves. If the rich in Britain evaded their taxes as successfully as the wealthy on the Continent did at the time, these expenses would have fallen increasingly on more ordinary people, like the people of Dorchester, and this, in turn, would have compromised their ability to buy other goods.

The erosion of Roman life began gently, and gradually worsened. In the late 360s or early 370s, however, a line was crossed, and Roman Britain's economy and culture entered into a terminal decline that would have been unimaginable a generation earlier. One of the clearest indications of this was the collapse of the various organized industries that had made Britain's small towns prosper. The pottery industry began to exhibit signs of strain by the middle of the century. Although there was no change in the number of kilns in production, from c. 350 on, the range of vessels and decorative motifs fell off. Then, sometime in the 370s, the great Romano-British kilns went into steep decline; within a single generation of the year 400, Britain became aceramic, and pottery a lost art. In c. 350, iron production plummeted in Britain as well, to something like a quarter of its early fourth-century level. By 410, it stopped altogether. Ironwork and pots may seem like trivial things, but once they were gone, Britain became a harder place. Nails grew scarce in the 370s, and by the 390s nails for coffins and hobnailed boots, the preferred footwear of Roman Britons, were simply no longer available; so the British slipped in the mud and buried the people they loved directly in the ground. In the archaeological record, pottery and metalwork leave clear impressions and noticeable absences; more perishable, less archaeologically visible goods—worked leather, wood, foodstuffs—doubtless disappeared or became more scarce, as well.

Dying industries brought towns like Dorchester down with them. Excavations of late-Roman suburbs near Dorchester and elsewhere have produced significantly fewer pot shards and coins dating from the mid-fourth century on, and coin finds and pottery shards almost disappear from these sites after c. 370. There is no evidence that these crumbling suburbs were destroyed by raiders. Instead their abandonment seems to have been the product of systemic economic troubles. Their collapse suggests that Britain could no longer sustain its large population of craftspeople.

photo of tibiaMeanwhile, larger urban areas atrophied as well. At Canterbury the sewers began clogging up around 350, and a thick layer of silt began to form in the city's baths and on its streets. Frontages of buildings started to encroach upon the city's public roads, something no civic authority would have allowed earlier. This happened in York and London, too. Still, urban life persisted to the end of the century—and in some places for a decade or two more. Cirencester's walls were repaired and maintained into the early fifth century, and its forum kept clear of the rubbish one would expect to find in a tatty, dying town. But the stone floor of its forum was in a very bad state: The once impressive sandstone slabs were worn paper thin. In Canterbury, York, Cirencester, and elsewhere, repairs to roads and walls, coupled with a dearth of coin and pottery finds, suggest that organized but impoverished communal life persisted in the face of economic collapse.

At some point, however, in the early fifth century, urban life died completely, and all of Britain's towns, both public and small, simply ceased to exist. The archaeology that supports this is often eloquent, even moving. The city of York, for example, reverted to marshland in the fifth century. Fossils of beetles, whose habitat was a world of high grass and reeds, have been found in the early fifth-century earth and debris that blanketed the moribund city. Froghoppers, creatures native to England's wetlands, are also found there, but are unknown in earlier deposits. Field mice, too, and water voles, weasels, and shrews returned to the ruined city and lived their watery lives in the decaying streets and ruined townhouses reclaimed by marsh.

A strange early fifth-century burial has been excavated by archaeologists within the walled city of Canterbury. Late-Roman burials are typically found in suburban cemeteries like the one excavated at Dorchester, because the Romans had exceptionally strong taboos against human burial within towns, and rigorously enforced laws upheld a strict apartheid between the living and the dead. So any burial within the walls of Canterbury represents both a failure of urban authority and a breach of long-standing cultural inhibitions. But the burial itself is stranger still. It is of a whole family—a father, mother, and two daughters, as well as two dogs.

The four were buried together with great care in a pit lined with grass. The parents were seated. The woman held one daughter in her lap, and the other girl lay at her feet. The dogs were laid across the father. One child had died from a blow to the head, and although the cause of death for the others cannot be determined, it is likely that all were victims of violence, given the girl's crushed skull. Their burial in a single pit is not a standard Roman burial by any means, but they were certainly Romanized Britons. They were buried with late-Roman bronze and silver jewelry, with Roman glass and keys. This odd interment and the violence that preceded it suggest extraordinary and terrible events in a town that was no longer a town, and points not to barbarian invaders, but to disorder and cultural breakdown.

By 420, Britain's towns were empty, its organized industries dead, its connections with the larger Roman world severed—and all without an Angle or a Saxon in sight.

BC historian Robin Fleming teaches courses on late-Roman and barbarian Europe. She is at work on the second volume of the New Penguin History of Britain, from which this account is drawn.

Photos (from top):

An example of the horizontal grooves that formed on Roman Britons' teeth in childhood, the result of malnourishment or diseases such as measles. Courtesy of Robin Fleming

The condition of a tibia bone (top right) illustrates how physical labor took its toll on Dorchester women. Courtesy of Robin Fleming

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