DNA analysis confirms family burials were part of Roman life in Colchester

  • Date

    Wed 2 May 18

Professor Nelson Fernandez

Bones from a Roman cemetery in Colchester have for the first time had their DNA analysed to confirm there were family burial sites in the town in the fourth century AD.

Essex scientists applied ancient DNA (aDNA) analysis to assess the DNA from bones from the Butt Road Roman cemetery. This cemetery is notable for spanning the transition from Roman paganism to Christianity, with north-south pagan burials overlain by a late Roman Christian cemetery in which the burials are oriented east-west.

Previous research had suggested the existence of family plots in the Christian level, although proving this definitively has proved a major difficulty. The new study, published in Frontiers in Genetics, is the first time the existence of family groupings in a Roman cemetery has been scientifically proved.

Led by Professor Nelson Fernández, the team from Essex extracted DNA from the femur bones of 29 skeletons, mostly from a large cluster of graves centred on two timber burial vaults.

Studies of ancient DNA usually determine relationships by looking at mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). Relationships can also be determined using HLA (human leukocyte antigen) typing which shows how closely the tissues of one person match the tissues of another person and is an effective indicator to show if someone is related. Using both approaches, the scientists found that the individuals buried within the vault complex at Butt Road were interrelated and were most likely from Roman descent. 

The results also throw some light on Christian funeral practices in Roman Britain. Most of the sampled graves which were arranged around the pair of vaults are interpreted as ‘focal graves’. The results indicate that family burials could be an important focal burial characteristic, with the associated family groupings perhaps representing people of privilege within the community. 

Professor Fernández said: “In recent years, aDNA analysis has breathed new life into archaeology as it is such a powerful research tool. It means that we have been able to for the first time scientifically prove the long-held theory that there were family burial areas at the Butt Road Roman cemetery by showing they shared the same inherited genetic markers.”

As Britain’s oldest recorded town, during the Roman period Colchester had a number of areas that were clearly used solely as cemeteries. The Butt Road Roman cemetery is one of the largest excavated Romano-British cemeteries and is associated with a church building, probably the earliest known in Britain.