A child who archaeologists believe may have been murdered in the mid-3rd century at Vindolanda Roman Fort on Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland was not a local. Isotope analysis on the tooth enamel found that the child, who was around 10 years old when he or she died, had lived in southern Europe or North Africa until the age of seven or eight.
The skeletal remains of the child were discovered in 2010 buried in a shallow pit in the corner of a barracks. At first archaeologists thought the remains might have belonged to a dog, but when experts examined the bones they discovered they belonged to a human child. They were not able to determine gender, but named the child Georgie just so they wouldn’t have to keep referring to the poor thing as “it.”
The position of Georgie’s hands indicated they may have been tied together, but the most significant evidence of foul play is the burial site itself. Roman funerary customs required that burials be done outside the perimeter of a town or fort. Burying this child inside the barracks would have been against the law and a major cultural taboo. Someone wanted to hide Georgie’s death very badly.
Researchers have not been able to pinpoint the cause of death. The skeleton is well-preserved from the neck down — even the wrist bones, just .4 inches long, were found — but there’s not much left of the skull. This could be explained by blunt force trauma to the head, which could have been caused by a deliberate blow or by an accident. Whatever the circumstances of Georgie’s death, everyone in the barracks where she or he was buried had to know about it. Eight soldiers from the Fourth Cohort of Gauls lived in a room with a decaying corpse buried under a few inches of soil, and none of them snitched.
Before the evidence of the tooth enamel, archaeologists assumed the child was from the Vindolanda area, or at least from Britain. Now a new level has been added to the intrigue. Georgie could certainly have been a slave. Child slaves were common in the empire. Any child born of a slave was also a slave; conquered peoples (including children) were kept or sold into slavery by the legions themselves; unwanted babies who were exposed by their parents would be scooped up and enslaved; by law Roman fathers had the right to sell their own children into slavery as they saw fit, to pay off debt, say. It seems more likely, however, that child slaves would have been secured locally than having been schlepped to the remote hinterlands of Britain from North Africa as seven-year-olds.
Another possibility is that the child was a family member of one of the soldiers. By 197 A.D., common soldiers were allowed to marry and when the legions lived for years in far-flung corners of the empire, they often wound up finding a girl and settling down. The barracks, however, were not fit for family use and the fort would have been unlivably crowded if everyone from top to bottom had wives and kids on site. Since Georgie came from down south, if she was following her father to his post, Dad was most likely an officer.
There’s plenty of evidence of women and children living at Vindolanda Roman Fort, although from a little earlier than Georgie’s time. In 1973 archaeologists discovered an incredible collection of letters written on wooden tablets from the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D. Some of them are official missives; most of them are personal, including one famous letter written by Claudia Severa inviting her friend Sulpicia Lepidina to her birthday party. Claudia was the wife of fort prefect Flavius Cerialis and she mentions in the letter her young son being with them.
Archaeological finds including woolen socks, shoes and jewelry in child and women’s sizes also testify to the presence of families at the fort. There were also civilian traders who helped supply the legions living on or near the fort. Georgie could have come from a trading settlement that grew around the military fort.