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Archaeologists Solve Mystery of 2,000-Year-Old Corpse Found In Britain

Photo Credit: MOLA Headland Infrastructure
Photo Credit: MOLA Headland Infrastructure

DNA analysis has revealed the truth behind how the remains of a young man born 2,000 years ago near present-day southern Russia were found in the English countryside. By employing various techniques, scientists were able to retrace the steps he took to travel from one end of the Roman Empire to the other.

Finding the skeleton

Skeletal remains in dirt.
The excavated burial of Offord Cluny 203645. (Photo Credit: MOLA Headland Industry – image as seen in Current Biology)

In 2017, MOLA Headland Infrastructure was doing excavations during a project to improve the A14 road between Cambridge and Huntingdon. While digging near the village of Offord Cluny in Cambridgeshire, they discovered the complete skeletal remains of a man. He was found in a trackway ditch, buried alone and with no other personal possessions around.

They named him Offord Cluny 203645, and while the remains were considerably well-preserved, the archaeologists believed they had simply come across the unremarkable discovery of a local man. However, after extracting a fossilized bone sample, the true origin of the man was revealed.

DNA testing revealed his origin

A woman piping a syringe into a container in a lab.
Marina Soares de Silva at the Francis Crick Institute’s Ancient Genomics Laboratory preparing ancient DNA for sequencing. (Photo Credit: Stephen Potvin / Francis Crick Institute)

After removing a small bone from the inner ear, which proved to be the best-preserved part of the man’s remains, scientists of the Ancient Genomics Laboratory at the Francis Crick Institute conducted a DNA analysis to determine his age and origin. Dr. Marina Silva, a postdoctoral fellow there, explained how “this is not like testing the DNA of someone who is alive. The DNA is very fragmented and damaged. However, we were able to (decode) enough of it.”

“The first thing we saw was that genetically he was very different to the other Romano-British individuals studied so far,” she said. The DNA analysis not only determined that he was buried sometime between 126 and 228 AD, but that he actually originated from the furthest reaches of the Roman Empire. It was revealed that he was a Samaritan, an Iranian-speaking people renowned for their horse-riding skills that were found in present-day southern Russia, Armenia, and Ukraine.

The importance of his teeth

A illustration of a map.
Until age 5 or 6, Offord Cluny 203645 ate plants commonly available in arid locations outside of Western or Northern Europe (Sarmatia in blue). A change in diet around the age of 6, and again after the age of 9, suggested he moved into Southeastern or Central Europe (Roman Empire in red) as a child before arriving in Britain and dying aged 18-25. (Photo Credit: Joe Brock / Francis Crick Institute)

To try and get some more information about the remains, an archaeology team from Durham University took the fossilized teeth of the man to try and determine how he ended up on the other side of the Roman Empire. Teeth can show how one’s diet changed over several years through the chemicals that surround each layer. By tracing what he ate, scientists can determine how old he was when he arrived.

They discovered that up until the age of six, he had a consistent diet of millets and sorghum grains (scientifically known as C4 crops) that are common and plentiful in regions where Sarmatians were known to have lived. Following this, the man’s diet changed from less and less of these crops to more wheat, common in Western Europe. Professor Janet Montgomery concluded that “the (analysis) tells us that he, and not his ancestors, made the journey to Britain. As he grew up, he migrated west, and these plants disappeared from his diet.”

So how did he get there?

Drawing of Sarmatian warriors.
An illustration of Sarmatian warriors. (Photo Credit: Costumes of All Nations / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Around the time he lived, the Roman Empire defeated a Sarmatian army on their northeastern border, absorbing their cavalry into their legions. It was recorded that at around this time, Marcus Aurelius had about 5,500 Sarmatians sent to Britain to be posted there.

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Considering that the research discovered that his diet changed when he was only six years old, it is unlikely that he was moved as a soldier who served as part of the Sarmatian cavalry. Instead, it suggests that he was just a child when he moved. As such, it also suggests that he was a cavalryman’s son or perhaps his slave.

Samantha Franco

Samantha Franco is a Freelance Content Writer who received her Bachelor of Arts degree in history from the University of Guelph, and her Master of Arts degree in history from the University of Western Ontario. Her research focused on Victorian, medical, and epidemiological history with a focus on childhood diseases. Stepping away from her academic career, Samantha previously worked as a Heritage Researcher and now writes content for multiple sites covering an array of historical topics.

In her spare time, Samantha enjoys reading, knitting, and hanging out with her dog, Chowder!