Ancient DNA reveals family relationships in Late Roman grave

Ancient DNA analysis has revealed that two of the individuals, though not genetically related, could have shared a kinship through marriage.

The recent aDNA analysis of three individuals all buried within the same grave at Cheddington, Buckinghamshire, has revealed an unusual family relationship between them.

IMAGE: Cotswold Archaeology

The grave (above) was first excavated by Cotswold Archaeology in 2018 in advance of development of the site and was found to contain two women – one was probably between 25 and 29 years of age when she died and the other was over 45 – as well as a pre-term infant at around 32 to 36 weeks’ gestation. While the foetus was found in the abdominal area of the younger woman, post-depositional disturbance of the grave made it impossible to determine whether the baby was still in utero at the time of burial or whether it had been born and laid to rest on the woman’s body.

Radiocarbon dating of the two adult skeletons placed them between the mid-3rd and early 5th centuries AD (255-535 calAD and 251-433 calAD), in the late Roman period. At this time, single inhumations were the norm, with a double (or triple) burial such as this one being unusual. This might indicate that their deaths occurred within a short time of one another. To learn more about why these individuals may have been buried together, they were selected to be further analysed as part of the ‘Thousand Ancient Genomes from Great Britain’ project in the Ancient Genomics Laboratory at the Francis Crick Institute in London.

The aDNA results did indeed confirm a familial relationship between the individuals, albeit not necessarily one that was expected. While the two women were unrelated, the foetus – who was determined to have been male through the genetic analysis – was indeed the son of the woman he was found lying on. But he also had a second-degree relationship with the older woman in the grave, with the results indicating that she was most likely either a paternal grandmother or a paternal aunt. So, while the two women may not have been genetically related, it could be that they shared a kinship through marriage. As was shown in last month’s CA (issue 392), aDNA is now allowing us to understand kinship in the past in new and exciting ways.