Roman Britain's Great Plague?

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{mosimage}When archaeologists began work at 120-122 London Road, Gloucester, in August 2004, it was the site of a disused service station.  Oxford Archaeology had been called in to excavate what was known to be part of the Wotton cemetery, one of several on the roads leading out of Roman Gloucester. .

Twelve individuals were represented in nine cremation burials of 1st and 2nd century date. The earliest were from the time of Nero (AD 54-68), when Wotton was the burial ground for the Kingsholm legionary fortress. Four crouched inhumation burials of late 1st to early 2nd century date were probably the remains of members of the native population who had integrated into the colonia. Inhumation replaced cremation as the general rite during the later 2nd century, and a total of 64 inhumation burials of 2nd to 4th century date were excavated. Two fragmentary tombstones, neither in situ, were recovered during the excavation. One was that of a slave boy called Martialis, the other that of an Italian soldier of the 20th Legion called Lucius Octavius Martialis.

The death-pit
During the excavation  a large square pit was revealed beneath seven relatively shallow overlying burials.  The excavators soon establishted that this pit, cut with vertical sides less than a metre deep, was also a grave –  a mass grave. The bodies appeared to have been tipped in without ceremony: the remains formed a tangle of skeletal parts, so contorted and intermeshed as to imply that all the bodies had been tipped in at the same time – that is, that they formed a single mass burial.

The skeletons showed no signs of trauma and the 91 individuals identified were of mixed age and gender. Study of the bones revealed nothing untoward – no evidence for violent trauma or environmental influences which largely ruled out two possible explanations for a mass grave of this type – warfare and poverty. What could be established was that this was a large number of people, including a disproportionate number in their prime, killed in a very short space of time by something that attacked the flesh but not the bone.

All the dating evidence pointed to an event in the later part of the 2nd century or the early part of the 3rd century AD, with the balance of probability in the earlier part of that period.

The Antonine plague
In AD 165, in the sweltering heat of a Mesopotamian summer, a deadly contagion had been imported into the camps of an invading Roman army. The contagion kept its grip through the winter, and then flared up again the following summer. The Roman army retreated in a chaos and the survivors, reaching Syria, brought the plague with them.  During AD 167 it swept across the Roman world.

No-one can prove that the London Road mass-grave is a plague pit. But the circumstantial evidence is compelling. The Oxford Archaeology team may have uncovered the first evidence that the Great Plague of the late Antonine age, which started at the easternmost limits of the empire, eventually reached its westernmost province. The Gloucester death-pit may have revealed that Britain, more than a thousand years before the Black Death, was struck by a Great Plague from the Continent.

For the full article, see Current Archaeology 221

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