In 2015, Leicestershire Police were called to Great Casterton, Rutland, when the construction of a conservatory in a private garden uncovered a human skeleton. After radiocarbon dating confirmed that this individual had died during the mid-to-late Roman period (AD 226-427 at 95.4% probability), though, MOLA archaeologists were brought in to excavate, record, and analyse the burial. As their findings – recently published in the journal Britannia – reveal, it would prove to be unique in Britain.
The burial’s occupant was a man aged around 26-35 at the time of death. Standing around 167.4-175.5cm tall in life (his skull and several neck vertebrae were missing), he would have been of average height for the time, but his remains spoke of a very physically demanding life, dominated by repetitive strenuous activity. A bony spur on his left thigh might testify to a traumatic event, perhaps a fall or violent blow, though this injury had healed by the time of his death. More unusually, he was buried with iron fetters fastened around his ankles with a padlock.
Iron shackles, manacles, and chains are known from sites across the Roman Empire, but they are rarely found in association with human remains. A small number of Roman burials have been identified in the UK – notably at the Driffield Terrace cemetery in York, and the Upper Walbrook Valley cemetery in London – containing skeletons with heavy iron rings around their ankles. As these had been welded closed, however, it has been suggested that they may have been added for symbolic purposes post-mortem – fastening hot metal on to living individuals would have caused severe, possibly fatal, injuries. The presence of unlockable fetters on the Great Casterton man, though, is thought to be unique in Britain, and might indicate that he had been restrained in life.
Signs of slavery?
Written sources and sculpture attest that slavery was ubiquitous in the Roman Empire, but identification of enslaved individuals in the archaeological record is not always clear. Convicted criminals who had been condemned to hard labour in mines and quarries are also known to have been restrained in some cases (see CA 376 for more on imperial exploitation in Roman Britain). Might the Great Casterton man have fallen into either of these groups? His shackles would have allowed a degree of mobility – albeit, limited to a slow, clanking shuffle – while leaving the wearer’s hands free for work, but travelling long distances would have been difficult and running impossible. Could this suggest someone who had spent his life in compelled labour?
The informal nature of the man’s burial speaks, too, of someone who had not been respected in life. He was not interred in a purpose-dug grave cut, but in a ditch, and the tumbled position of his remains – lying on his side, with his left side and arm slightly raised on a slope, and his legs slightly bent – suggests that he may have been unceremoniously cast into his final resting place, before being covered with soil containing household refuse. We know from surviving tombstones that some enslaved people were accorded funerals and formal burials, but whoever the Great Casterton man was, he seems to have been excluded from such practices. Suggestions of someone ‘set apart’ from society are only heightened by the fact that a large, broadly contemporary Roman cemetery lies just 60m from the ditch where he was buried. Both sites are close to Ermine Street, a short distance to the north of Roman Great Casterton (at that time, a small walled town).
Questions of identity
Who, then, was the Great Casterton man? Does the fact that he was shackled in death suggest that he had spent his life in bondage? We do not know his cause of death, nor the significance of his missing skull – although the top part of his grave had been truncated by modern building works, that is not to say that his head could not have been deliberately removed during the Roman period; several of the Driffield Terrace skeletons had been decapitated. It is also curious that his fetters were left on him for burial – these iron objects would have been valuable, and their scarcity in the burial record might indicate that they were more typically retrieved and reused. Might their inclusion hint at a clandestine burial, or deliberately demeaning treatment of his body? Alternatively, perhaps his restraints had a ritual dimension, intended to prevent the deceased from rising to disturb the living.
Numerous interpretations are possible, and MOLA archaeologist Chris Chinnock and Finds Specialist Michael Marshall note in Britannia that ‘the man’s precise legal status remains a moot point, as others punished and coerced into labour, such as convicts and coloni [who were obliged to pay tax to their landlord, and to work and remain on their land], could also be chained in the manner of slaves.’ However, they write, ‘the Great Casterton burial is perhaps the best candidate for the remains of a slave in Roman Britain.’
Further information C Chinnock and M Marshall, ‘An unusual Roman fettered burial from Great Casterton, Rutland’, Britannia (2021), https://doi.org/10.1017/S0068113X21000076. You can also read more about the burial on MOLA’s blog: www.mola.org.uk/blog/unique- burial-thought-be-rare-direct-evidence-slavery-roman-britain.
ALL images: MOLA.