Box Of Bones Thought To Be Roman, Lost For 55 Years, Turn Out To Be As Old As Cheddar Man

The model of Cheddar Man, who lived over 9,000 years ago, as sculpted by the incredible Kennis & Kennis Reconstructions and featured in the Channel 4 TV show First Brit: The 10,000 Year Old Man. (c) Tom Barnes/Channel 4

Humanity's quest for knowledge is so strong you’d think people would take great care handling, storing, or at the very least keeping an eye on potentially important historic or scientific artifacts. You’d be surprised, however, how many have been lost, misplaced, or just disappear. Moon rocks from the Appollo mission and JFK’s brain spring to mind.

Occasionally some turn up again (unfortunately President Kennedy’s brain has not) and even turn out to be more important than first imagined. Like the ancient remains of several people found in Somerset, UK, in the 1960s, long-presumed to be from the nearby ~2,000-year-old Roman excavation. Inexplicably these got boxed up and promptly lost, only to turn up 55 years later, where they got carbon dated and were revealed to have been contemporaries of Cheddar Man, about 7,000 years earlier.

Cheddar Man, discovered in 1903, is Britain's oldest complete skeleton belonging to a Mesolithic young man who died a violent death and ended up buried in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset in the southwest of England around 9,000-10,000 years ago. You may remember him from a DNA study published last year that put out some people upon learning that the earliest Britons likely had dark skin.  

These bones were discovered in a cave in Cannington Park Quarry, about 32 kilometers (20 miles) from Cheddar Gorge, in 1964, after quarry blasting opened up the chamber. The remains of what would later be confirmed as seven individuals, as well as deer, horses, and aurochs were excavated from the blast material.

They were initially believed to have been remains from the Cannington Cemetery above the quarry, a late-Roman cemetery first excavated in 1962, and this was how they were boxed and labeled.

Cotswold Archaeology

Then they somehow got lost. Over the years they were transferred between museums, including London’s Natural History Museum where Cheddar Man now lies, eventually “disappearing” from the record.

"It was a bit of a mystery, I'd assumed they had been archived with the rest of the dig from the post-Roman cemetery," osteoarchaeologist Sharon Clough, of Cotswold Archaeology, told BBC News.

“They'd been picked out of the rubble in the cave and weren't seen as part of the main dig so they were only mildly interesting and were archived and forgotten about."

More recently, researchers from Cotwold Archaeology hoping to ascertain the relationship between the Cannington cemetery and their own excavations of a Roman villa and post-Roman cemetery found nearby went looking for the remains, finally tracking them down to Taunton in Somerset.

When they started looking at the bones they noticed some unexpected characteristics. The light color and lack of erosion on the bone is more similar to what you’d find if they had been lying on the floor of a sealed cave, rather than in the earth. One upper jaw fragment also showed dental wear more akin to using teeth as a tool, more often seen in prehistoric remains. Both indicated a possible prehistoric cave burial rather than a Roman cemetery one.

To investigate, they decided to radiocarbon date the bones, selecting two bones from two individuals; one adult, one immature. The results shocked them. The samples returned a 95.4 percent probability of dating to between 8545-8328 BCE for one, and 8237-7976 BCE for the other, making them over 9,000 years old – around the same age as their Cheddar neighbor.

Mesolithic remains are a rarity in Britain, so the addition of at least two more is very exciting – not least because the cave was destroyed by quarrying in the 1990s, so these bones are the "only surviving evidence for what now appears to have been a rare Mesolithic burial site," Clough said. 

[H/T: BBC News

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