A rare Roman double burial from Roman Gloucester: revealing relationships through aDNA

The scientific study of ancient DNA (aDNA) provides us with new and transformative insights into many aspects of the physical make up of people in the past. Recent breakthroughs in this cutting edge and exciting technique shed light on themes including ancient population movement, social relationships, families, gender-specific mobility, and social inequalities.

Working together with Pontus Skoglund’s laboratory at the Francis Crick Institute, Cotswold Archaeology has recently been providing samples for the ‘1000 ancient British genomes’ project. We have also previously provided samples for aDNA projects at Harvard University’s David Reich Lab and the EU funded collaborative COMMIOS project. Some of the results from these collaborations have provided us with fascinating information, often providing exciting, deeper insights into the lives of the people who lived at the sites we investigate.

One such project is the site of a Roman cemetery in Gloucester.  One of the burials we discovered at this cemetery was a double interment, i.e., a grave where two people had been placed at the same time. The two individuals had been placed side by side; the arm of one of the skeletons lay over the chest of the other. Osteological analysis (the study of the bones) indicated that both occupants of the grave were adult males. One of the men was relatively young, while the other was an older individual. Double burials such as this are not commonly found within Roman cemeteries, and the unusual discovery raised the question of whether these two people may have been related.

Two individuals buried within the same grave at a Roman cemetery in Gloucester
Two individuals buried within the same grave at a Roman cemetery in Gloucester

Using the petrous bone (one of the bones protecting the inner ear), samples were taken from both individuals and submitted for aDNA analysis. The results rather poignantly revealed that the men buried within this grave were a father and his son. While osteological analysis had provided us with basic details about these men, this exciting proof that the pair were related could only be ascertained through their aDNA. The sad story of the cause of death of the older man and his son remains a mystery; whatever had killed the unfortunate members of this family left no traces on their bones.    

Sharon Clough

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