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Shackled skeleton found in Rutland village garden rare link to slavery in Roman Britain




A shackled skeleton discovered in a Great Casterton garden has been declared an ‘internationally significant’ archaeological find.

The Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) said the skeleton of a man found buried in a ditch, secured at the ankles by a locked set of iron fetters, is the first discovery of its kind from Roman Britain.

According to findings published for the first time on Tuesday, in the journal Britannia, the fetters are the strongest evidence of slavery in Roman Britain ever discovered.

These iron fetters were found secured to the ankles of the skeleton. Photo: Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA)
These iron fetters were found secured to the ankles of the skeleton. Photo: Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA)

MOLA Finds Specialist, Michael Marshall, said such burials were very rare in the Roman Empire with only a few ever excavated and analysed.

"It is nationally significant because it's the only example of a skeleton from Roman Britain to have been discovered wearing iron restraints of this kind," he said.

"As the use of shackles was strongly associated with Roman slavery they could be an indication the man buried at Great Casterton was enslaved.

A diagram of the burial. The head is missing having been previously disturbed by a trench. Photo: Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA)
A diagram of the burial. The head is missing having been previously disturbed by a trench. Photo: Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA)

“It expands our understanding of how the Romans treated their dead and also how Roman shackles worked.”

The skeleton was discovered by builders working on a home extension in 2015 and Leicestershire Police were called in.

They radiocarbon-dated the remains from AD 226 to 427, and MOLA archaeologists were brought in analyse the find.

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Examination of the skeleton suggested the man led a physically demanding life, but the cause of his death remains unknown.

The burial position of the body suggested he was buried informally, in a ditch rather than a proper grave, as does its location, 60 metres outside a known Roman cemetery.

Mr Marshall believes burial in such shackles strongly suggests he was a poorly-treated slave, but cannot rule out he was an executed convict.

"His burial beyond the cemetery might indicate he was in some sense excluded from these communities or was not deemed worthy of the care or expense of a proper burial," he added.

"Even if the man was a slave or convict, it was clearly unusual for the shackles to be left in place after his death because this burial is unique in Roman Britain.

“We can probably never be certain about his precise legal status, but this is the strongest evidence yet encountered for the burial of a slave. ”

The Roman town of Great Casterton was deemed important because of its location on the major road Ermine Street which linked Roman London to Lincoln and York.

A fort, excavated in the 1960s, was built to the north-east of the town around AD 44-45, a few years after the Roman invasion of southern England.

A well-appointed late-Roman villa with a bath house and mosaic floors has been found, and a late-Roman cemetery was also discovered in the 1960s around Ryhall Road and Pickworth Road.

"The Roman town at Great Casterton was fairly small, but it was important enough to have its own defences, a wall and earthworks, which were improved and elaborated," Mr Marshall explained.

"The interior of the town has not been extensively excavated but evidence from the area suggests that the local economy involved metalworking, pottery making and crop processing."



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