Page last updated at 08:19 GMT, Wednesday, 30 April 2008 09:19 UK

'Plague' killed Roman grave dead

Roman grave
DNA tests will be carried out on the bones to test the theory

A study into a mass Roman grave excavated in Gloucester appears to show the dead had been killed by smallpox.

The remains of around 91 individuals uncovered in 2005 are in part of Wooton Cemetery, which was the burial ground for the fortress at nearby Kingsholm.

The bodies appear to have been thrown in the grave haphazardly during the second half of the 2nd Century.

Oxford Archaeology who analysed the remains say they are the victims of an epidemic, perhaps the Antonine Plague.

This outbreak of smallpox swept across the Roman Empire between AD 165 and 189.

"The skeletons of adult males, females, and children were lying in a very haphazard fashion, their bones completely entangled, reflecting the fact that they had been dumped, unceremoniously in a hurried manner," said Louise Loe, Head of Burial Archaeology.

Inscribed tombstones

"When we studied the skeletons we were looking for evidence, such as trauma, that would explain why they had been buried in such a way.

"In fact, very little trauma was found on the skeletons...this led us to conclude that the individuals were the victims of an epidemic that did not discriminate against age or sex," she said.

Such outbreaks of disease killed quickly and tended not to leave marks on bone, she said.

Future DNA tests will be carried out on the skeletons in the hope of confirming the theory.

Also unearthed on the site on London Road were two 1st Century sculptured and inscribed tombstones which helped the team make a direct connection between documentary evidence and the archaeological record of the site.

One tombstone was for a 14-year-old slave, the other for a soldier of the 20th legion, Lucius Octavius Martialis, son of Lucius, of the Pollian voting tribe from Eporedia.

The legion was stationed at Gloucester until the late 1st Century with soldiers from Sporedia, modern Ivrea north of Turin.

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