Skeletons at Roman villa could be first owners found

Five late Roman-era skeletons unearthed at the site of an ancient villa near Blandford in North Dorset may be the first owners of a Roman villa ever found in Britain. The team of archaeologists and 85 students from Bournemouth University excavated the villa on a corn field near Winterbourne Kingston last year. This year they did a geophysical survey of the grounds using electrical resistance meters to map archaeological features beneath the earth and found a grave site 300 feet away from the building. Excavation revealed the individual burials of five people: two adult males, two adult females and one elderly females.

The remains date to the 4th century (around 350 A.D.), the same period when the villa was built. Researchers believe the remains represent three generations of the family who owned the villa. Even though many Roman villas have been unearthed in England, most of them were discovered in the 19th century when archaeological practices and technologies were still artifact-focused. Human remains were poorly documented or ignored altogether, thus there is much we don’t know about the landowning elite of late Roman Britain.

The bones have been removed and sent to laboratory for testing that will hopefully narrow down the date and fill in many blanks about the people who lived in the villa.

Miles Russell, a Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at Bournemouth University and one of the archaeologists leading the dig, said, “The discovery is of great significance as it is the only time where evidence of a villa and the villa’s occupants have been found in the same location in Britain. This could provide us with significant information, never retrieved before, about the state of health of the villa owners, their ancestry and where they came from.”

Miles continued, “One of the big questions in South West is whether the villas in the South West were owned by Britons who have become Roman or owned by people from another part of the Empire who have come to exploit an under-developed rural area. All villas in this region in the South West are late-Roman – and our findings should tell us more about what life was like in this period of history. This is what can be assessed when the bones are analysed.”

The period was a turbulent one, characterized by political upheaval, economic decline, military dissension and increasing Saxon incursions. Britain supported the usurper emperor Magnentius (reigned 350-353 A.D.), and it suffered the displeasure of the legitimate emperor Constantius II after Magnetius was defeated and killed. Magnetius’ supporters in Britain were hunted down and killed by Constantius II’s envoy.

Ten years later, the Barbarian Conspiracy saw masses of Saxons, Scotti, Picts, Attacotti join with some native Britons and rebellion legions on Hadrian’s Wall ravage the province. They were defeated by general Flavius Theodosius, father of the future emperor Theodosius I, in 368. Meanwhile, the minting of new coins all but stopped by the end of the century. Getting a richer understanding of the occupants of a Roman villa during this era will open a window on how the elites lived when all this was happening around them.

If you’re fortunate enough to be in the neighborhood this weekend, the dig will be hosting an Open Day this Sunday July 13th from 10:30 AM to 4:30 PM. There is no fee and you don’t have to register. Visitors will get a guided tour of the site, a chance to meet the team and to see some of the artifacts that have been excavated this year.

For the less fortunate rest of us, we can follow the Durotriges Project dig on their outstanding Twitter account which is very active and crammed with great pictures.

12 thoughts on “Skeletons at Roman villa could be first owners found

  1. Hello, I apologize for being so far away for so long. I have been laid up for some time, and this is the first chance I have had to really devote time to my favorite history blog, and its spectacular and extremely intelligent caretaker.

    My question really has nothing to do with this article, although ever time I hear of another archaeological dig in England, I instantly regret my great grandparents did not stay there in the first place. They may have though they were doing their posterity a favor, but I think they did me and my family a huge disservice by robbing us of the deep and wonderful heritage you all share. I often tell my wife that if I could go back in time, just once, I would blow up the ship they were to board and hire a witch doctor to plague them with a superstition and fear of ocean travel.

    Anyhow, sorry to digress, my question is, what are, or is, the oldest known artifact found and dated where there is no contest as to its accuracy or placement in history. And if you know this, how would you substantiate it?

    Really, this article did serve to make me think: with all the human bones that have been found since the mid 19 th century, and maybe slightly earlier than that, there must have been a cacophony of artifacts alongside or in the same area. My question is not how are they dated, but what is the oldest artifact? Where was it found, and how was dating done so that everyone in the community was in agreement with its accuracy.

    I apologize for not sticking to topic. I do not yet know what misdemeanour I have committed in not doing so, but I pray it is tolerable.

    Thank you for your time, as always.


  2. If I may interfere, being a hobbyist myself as you seem to be, Tom: ‘History’ kicks in, as soon somebody -possibly not free from intentions- cared to take ‘historical’ notes several thousand years ago. Artefacts from prehistory, however, are also part of the story, as -from your personal point of view- your grandparents move is as well. Therefore, the oldest artefacts like ‘instruments’, ‘weapons’ or ‘statuettes’ from prehistory are probably 40k years old remains that survived in central european caves or in australian deserts, but I assume there are caves as well in Australia. The oldest historical records are probably 10k year old notes from Mesopotamia, indicating that king A kindly thanked lord B, or issued his death warrant or a business letter, with king A’s biographical dates on record. – Does that help ?

  3. Hello Jane, yes, this helps a lot. What I am trying to determine is, is there is a consensus in the scientific community on what the oldest prehistory artefact,(I like the spelling), is. Where is was found, and how they dated it. You are right, I am obsessed with history. I set off to major in history and biblical archeology in college, but could not afford to finish my studies. So now, I spend a lot of time n study, and currently have a relatively easy life sitting around a lot. It provides me with a lot of time to read, and ponder what I am reading. Thank you Jane, for taking the time to respond to my inquiry.


  4. On Monday we reburied a west country Roman skeleton of a young woman that had been under the coffee table in our church for 49 years. She was discovered in a lead coffin within a green-stone sarcophagus that was found when a swimming pool was being dug at Bradley House. There were no grave goods and the orientation was North/South. As the big house is next door to the church I was wondering if the burial of such an obviously wealthy lady was an indication of a villa site, an early church or the route of the Roman road from Charterhouse to Old Sarum. I was interested to learn that burials took place on villa sites. (Not my period so I’m hopelessly ignorant.)

  5. The oldest artifacts (or artefects) currently known are actually a good deal older than 40,000 years old, but were used by ancestor species to our own, such as Homo erectus and Homo habilus. We’re presently finding tools associated with the latter species dating to over two million years in the past. It’s likely that Homo sapiens, our own species, has always been using tools, but we newbies only came onto the scene about 350,000 years ago.

  6. My cat is not supposed to bring ‘artifects’ inside, and is considered a malefactor otherwise. Have you guys hints for the earliest historical use of ‘artifacts’ instead of ‘artefacts’ ? – Etym.: artefact, from Italian ‘artefatto’, Latin ‘arte’, ‘factum’. An ‘artifex’ is an artist, but -at least my cat agrees with me- that an artefact is not necessarily art.

    I have a book, where a ‘face’ made from clay is described … it is actually a ‘Makapansgat’ pebble that an early hominid must have picked up and brought back home – So ‘natura, non arte me fecit’. Contrastingly, even animals use tools, and some special ones like ‘Corvus moneduloides’ even make them, so there is probably no limit. Things like isotope analysis might help to determine who these significant ‘roman’ dwellers were.

    I’ve been trying to convince my cat that it takes a hand -or ‘manus’- to become ‘prehistory’ and that the spelling is ‘manufact’.

  7. Hi Thomas, you seem to be interested in some of the same questions I am. Have you found any particularly good resources like books, podcasts, professors, etc. to help analyze the frontier of what we know about the first humans? I am not a Christian but I also don’t think the evolutionary model fits the data well, in my lay opinion, so I am looking for viewpoints that aren’t Darwinian but also aren’t necessarily biblical. Thanks for being out there.

  8. Hello David,

    I am so glad you have come around. The short of it is: no, I have not found any credible documented research that is helping me to understand, not so much the origin of man kind as we know it, but physical proof of intelligent man well before the last ice age. I would like to write with you directly, if you do not mind. : is my email address. I see no point in making the dear blog author, or his/ her highly valued subscribers, suffer through my endless questions as I try to construct some type of fabric of understand of what the pre-cataclysmic may have looked like. I know that by running some simply mathematical analysis on what vegetation thrives on the world today, that the amount of oil reserve that the world enjoys now, and its current locations, paints an absolutely amazing and beautiful reality of what that world may have looked like. Anyhow, maybe we can pick up these musings privately, just as long as you promise that you are not a stalker. Well, a stalker may be okay, but we will have to see.

  9. Hey there would you mind letting me know which web host you’re working with?
    I’ve loaded your blog in 3 completely different web browsers and I
    must say this blog loads a lot quicker then most. Can you recommend a good internet hosting provider at a reasonable price?

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