Human remains?

Justin-T
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Joined: 4:30 PM - Aug 19, 2009

3:11 PM - Mar 12, 2010 #1

I've never seen any mention of human bones being recovered (although I may easily have missed it) from the Vindolanda site. I'm thinking that DNA testing should be possible, given the preservation level of many other finds, and might reveal interesting details of the owner's regional origin.

Can anyone chime in on this?
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Badger
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4:49 PM - Mar 12, 2010 #2

Andrew and Justin (the other one) seem a bit busy these days, so lesser wits must contribute....

Obviously A and J "know where the bodies are buried". The fields to the west of the vicus are known to contain many, many burials. They are generally to be avoided at all costs, because finding a grave requires a halt in the work, and special permits, legal work etc. I guess the coroner needs to rule that the human remains found in the same strata as 3rd century pottery is not in fact the body of the Missing Vicar from Doomsworth Abbey.

On the western edge of the 2008/9 vicus excavation there were a number of cyst graves, about a dozen as I recall my conversation with Justin. I have a pretty good pic of one if anyone is interested. Once the special paperwork for excavation was obtained I know at least one was explored, but no remains, er, remained. That darned later plowing. These were felt to be late, late burials, 4th century?

And of course there was that skull found in a fort ditch. Speculation was that it was a tribesman, killed and beheaded on a punitive expedition, his noggin then being put on a pike as a warning. (btw I have tried this in my garden with a cardboard cut out of a dead rabbit, and it seems to help a little).

You might get sufficient DNA (or better yet mitochondrial RNA) to compare to local samples, but there are a couple of problems.

Time and the chemical processes needed for conservation likely make this no longer possible.

If history can be believed, which it can't be usually, most of the local population left in the post roman era, so the odds of finding a notable degree of genetic similarity would seem low. The Cheshire Man of a few years ago was a good example of a case where the genetic continuity was noteworthy.

Sorry if I have made a hash of the facts in an archeo sense, but at least with the medical side of things I feel a degree of confidence.

Tim Wolter (MD)
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Justin-T
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Joined: 4:30 PM - Aug 19, 2009

6:43 PM - Mar 12, 2010 #3

If the bones were in the anaerobic layers I would be very surprised if the nuclear DNA was degraded badly enough to get no amplification (I've never done archaeological PCR, but plenty from ordinary tissue). Certainly there would be some mtDNA to be had.

An essentially complete genome sequence for Neandertals was published last year from a 40,000 year old bone, so in terms of age alone these Roman era bones are suitable for PCR. Condition of the bones at Vindolanda may not be as good, but if there are many finds, then I have to believe that some of them still hold amplifiable genomic fragments.

I was really thinking about being able to use the analysis to show likely regional origin of the person, it should be possible to show whether the person was a Celt, Brit of some other kind or likely a Roman or Gaul for example.

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Badger
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7:36 PM - Mar 12, 2010 #4

In general I don't doubt this is true. But the vicus graves had no bones to be found, and the skull I mentioned looked pretty "preserved" Not sure what kind of stuff they dip it in. And with the Neaderthal DNA a big issue was contamination from the hands of conservators. I'm guessin' a few paws have been on the skull here.
But you may know best, I work with people who are alive and meant to stay that way!
Tim Wolter
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Justin-T
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7:48 PM - Mar 12, 2010 #5

Contamination from modern handling is always a potential problem with human tissue, but there are protocols to get round it. I think with bones you typically saw out a chunk in a controlled environment and take tissue from below the surface. For really critical samples you have it done at two different labs and can then compare results and easily pick up cases of contamination.

Most likely someone has tried this in the past and the bone was too degraded.
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SacoHarry
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9:55 PM - Mar 12, 2010 #6

The report for 2001-02 has a good 30-some-page writeup of the skull. It says it was a "Caucasoid male aged approximately 20 to 30 years." It then gives a lengthy account of the trauma that had happened to the person (short version: he met a nasty end), and concludes with a recommendation to do isotope analysis to figure out childhood residence & diet.

That's the kicker -- dunno if that follow-up analysis has been done yet. Andy?

Source: Loe, Louise, "Appendix I: Specialist Report on the Human Skull (8658) from Vindolanda, Northumberland" in Birley & Blake, "Vindolanda Excavations 2001 & 2002," Roman Army Publications, Greenhead (2003) (mine is on CD, purchased from vindolanda.com's store a few years ago)
Last edited by SacoHarry on 9:59 PM - Mar 12, 2010, edited 1 time in total.
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Andy
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5:58 AM - Mar 13, 2010 #7

lead isotope analysis conducted, proved inconclusive. Could have been from anywhere in western empire to north of scotland.
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Justin
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9:43 AM - Mar 15, 2010 #8

very quickly a note regarding the potential 'graves' in the west of the vicus.

Basically the whole area had been badly plough damaged truncating much of the evidence and making analysis tricky. The potential burials were also, however, as Tim points out, in later Roman levels and therefore very close to the surface. They were very open to post depositional processes including bioturbation. The classic anaerobic Vindolanda preservation conditions didn't apply and worse news was the soil in the area was fairly acidic. The result of those factors is that any intact bone (even left as a soil stain) was long gone.

We still have a slim hope of establishing if the pits, cuts etc contained burials via our soil samples as there is a possibility that additional funeray deposits such as fruit etc may have survived. The intial processing of these samples has been done but we await the complete results from our science specialist with her powerful microscope and vast experience.

I can honestly say that the excavator wouldn't be surprised to find they were industrial pits given their close proximity to workshops in the immediate area.

Anyway, just my twopennyworth


Justin
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ericjacobson
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Joined: 10:41 AM - Nov 01, 2006

5:07 PM - Mar 17, 2010 #9

Justin wrote:very quickly a note regarding the potential 'graves' in the west of the vicus.

Basically the whole area had been badly plough damaged truncating much of the evidence and making analysis tricky. The potential burials were also, however, as Tim points out, in later Roman levels and therefore very close to the surface. They were very open to post depositional processes including bioturbation. The classic anaerobic Vindolanda preservation conditions didn't apply and worse news was the soil in the area was fairly acidic. The result of those factors is that any intact bone (even left as a soil stain) was long gone.

We still have a slim hope of establishing if the pits, cuts etc contained burials via our soil samples as there is a possibility that additional funeray deposits such as fruit etc may have survived. The intial processing of these samples has been done but we await the complete results from our science specialist with her powerful microscope and vast experience.

I can honestly say that the excavator wouldn't be surprised to find they were industrial pits given their close proximity to workshops in the immediate area.

Anyway, just my twopennyworth


Justin
Thanks for that information, Justin. Great stuff.

I hope you have fair weather for the start of the new excavation season!
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SacoHarry
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Joined: 9:29 PM - Aug 22, 2006

1:15 PM - Mar 23, 2010 #10

This from Badger:

"Grave or industrial pit? Either way pretty much the only structure in Site B to ever have four right angle corners!"
roman_grave.jpg
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