Reconstructed Face Shows A Medieval Wanderer Found Buried In A Toilet

Facial reconstruction of one of the early medieval bodies discovered beneath a Roman bathhouse at the Roman fort near Edinburgh, but likely came from the Southern Highlands or Loch Lomond.. Image credit: University of Aberdeen

This is the face of a "rolling stone" who spent his life wandering across medieval Scotland before (most likely) meeting an unpleasant death, left to lay in the remains of a Roman toilet for centuries.  

Archeologists recently took a closer look at the skeletal remains of nine adults and five children discovered beneath a bathhouse at the former-Roman fort in Cramond near Edinburgh, Scotland, piecing together their story using a bunch of bioarchaeological techniques and isotopic data. 

These remains are literally “bog bodies,” not because they were preserved in the acidic, low oxygen environment of a wetland, but because these bodies were actually discovered in what the British often call a bog: a toilet, aka latrine, that was used by Roman soldiers when they occupied Scotland centuries before.

First discovered in 1975, it was initially assumed that the skeletal remains dated from the 14th century CE, perhaps victims of the Black Death. However, new radiocarbon dating showed they were actually some 800 years older, dating to the 6th century CE. This was a tumultuous but little-understood, time in British history; a fact that is sewn into the physical make-up of the skeletons.

Recently reported in the journal Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, isotopic analysis of their teeth gave a surprisingly detailed history of these people's lives, providing sharp insights into their diet and geographic origins.

“Food and water consumed during life leave a specific signature in the body which can be traced back to their input source, evidencing diet and mobility patterns,” Professor Kate Britton, senior author of the study and archeologist at the University of Aberdeen, said in a statement.

“Tooth enamel, particularly from teeth which form between around three and six years of age, act like little time capsules containing chemical information about where a person grew up,” explained Professor Britton.

Six of the individuals’ teeth featured chemical signatures indicating they were born and raised in the area local to Cramond. However, analysis of one female suggested some came from the West coast, and a male was consistent with an upbringing in the Southern Highlands or Loch Lomond. This indicates that migration in early medieval Scotland was a lot more common than previously believed. 

“It is often assumed that travel in this period would have been limited without roads like we have today and given the political divides of the time. The analysis of the burials from Cramond, along with other early medieval burial sites in Scotland, are revealing that it was not unusual to be buried far from where you had originally grown up,” added Dr Orsolya Czére, post-doctoral researcher and lead author of the study.

"Previous studies have suggested that those buried here were of high social status, even nobility. What we can say from our new analyses was that these were well-connected individuals, with lives that brought them across the country,” Dr Czére added.

With this migration likely came a bunch of new cultural developments and genetic exchanges – plus bloody social clashes. It’s also evident that some of these “bog bodies” likely died a gruesome death, with a woman and young child deposited in the Roman latrine appearing to have suffered a heavy blow to the skull before death.

Despite their social status, it's fair to guess that some members of this unusual group of wanderers met a deeply gruesome fate.

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