Gruesome reminders of a terrible tragedy

Two bits of burnt and blackened human bone just found during our current archaeological investigations at Williams & Griffin site by Colchester High Street are very rare and gruesome reminders of what was probably the worst ever conflict to have taken place in Britain. This was the so-called Boudiccan Revolt when, in AD 61, British tribes under Boudicca of the Iceni unsuccessfully tried to defeat the Roman army and free the country from Roman control. The attempt failed with the result that Colchester, London, and Verulamium (now St Albans) were burnt to the ground and many thousands of people on both sides lost their lives.

The populations of two of the towns had enough time to escape before Boudicca’s arrival. Londoners were able to leave under the protection of the Roman provincial governor Suetonius Paullinus as were also (probably) the people of Verulamium. But the inhabitants of Colchester were not so lucky. Time was short because they were the first target of the Boudiccan army. A last-minute attempt to rescue them by part of the Ninth Legion failed and many of the townspeople were rounded up and sacrificed in groves sacred to the victorious British. The whole town was burnt to the ground.

Substantial areas Boudican remains in Colchester have been investigated over the years especially along the south and west sides of the town but human remains have been conspicuously absent there. The Roman historian Tacitus  recorded that some soldiers held out for two days in the Temple of Claudius before being overrun by the British. Presumably many of the inhabitants of Colchester were sheltering with them. The recently discovered bones in Williams & Griffin must be the remains of people who died in buildings set on fire by the British as they quickly overran the town.

After the end of the revolt, the burnt-out buildings in Colchester were cleared way one by one and replaced. Their walls had been made largely of a sandy clay material either in block form or as daub on timber-frames. The quantity of burnt debris generated during this process must have been immense. These odd fragments of bone from our site show that not all the inhabitants of the town reached the shelter of the Temple of Claudius or ended up in the sacred groves. The bones didn’t in fact lie in situ on the floors of burnt buildings but in some of the debris that had been collected up and removed as the buildings were being demolished. The bones are fragmentary and unconnected. They were loose and must have escaped noticed during the demolition works. But their presence suggests that bodies did in fact lie in the destroyed buildings and that these must have been removed for burial as the demolition work progressed.

The bones from our site lay in some burnt building debris which had been used to raise the level of the main north-south street during the rebuilding of the town. One of them was the left half a lower jaw bone (mandible). The other was part of the top of a shin bone (tibia). This lay about 60 cms away from the jaw bone. The bones were not in their correct anatomical positions relative to each other but they may nevertheless have belonged to the same body. The jaw bone is rather small. The existing teeth suggest a person who was in his or her late teens or early 20s, largely on the absence of the third molar (wisdom tooth).

This is only the second collection of burnt human bone to have been recorded from the Boudiccan debris. The first discovery was made in 1965 by Ros Dunnett (later Ros Niblett) during excavations on a site off West Stockwell Street. It appears from the location of the discovery that this bone also came from redeposited Boudiccan debris on top of the north-south street but 95m to the north. The fact that the two sets of bone (ie the ones from Williams & Griffin and those found in 1965) lay relatively close to each other hints that the reason for the absence of bones in the southern and western parts of the town is because a lot of the inhabitants took shelter in this part of the town instead.

We have just started to excavate the third of the three areas we are to investigate in Williams & Griffins. The new area is north of the present one and half way towards the site of the 1965 find so it’s going to be interesting to see if more human bone turns up in the third and final area as it might well do…!

The excavations at Williams & Griffin are being funded by Fenwick. The new store is being constructed by Sir Robert McAlpine.    

Boudiccan mandible