Revealing their secrets: Skulls from Roman London discovered on Crossrail dig - Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 2 October

With a £15 billion price tag and 10,000 workers, it’s no surprise that London’s giant Crossrail scheme is the biggest infrastructure construction project in Europe right now.


Revealing their secrets: Skulls from Roman London discovered on Crossrail dig

Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 2 October


With a £15 billion price tag and 10,000 workers, it’s no surprise that London’s giant Crossrail scheme is the biggest infrastructure construction project in Europe right now.

But it’s not just areas to the east and west of the capital that are being connected by the tunnels being created. It seems that Crossrail also offers a direct service to the 3rd century AD.

The most recent discovery by the team of archaeologists working on the project is 20 skulls, which are believed to be from the Roman period. The skulls were found about 3m down, close to a burial ground where hundreds of skeletons have already been discovered.

While no fewer than 10,000 Roman items have been unearthed since work on Crossrail began in 2008, this latest discovery has sparked particular excitement among archaeologists, who believe the skulls could offer an invaluable insight into the lives of London’s Roman residents.

The bones are believed to have been washed to their present location by one of London’s “lost” rivers – the Walbrook, which was paved over in the 15th century. The moist, muddy conditions the river left behind proved to be perfect for preserving ancient artefacts and remains.

The skulls are likely to date from the 3rd or 4th century AD. In this period, the Museum of London Archaeology’s Nicholas Elsden told the BBC, Romans buried deceased citizens, rather than cremating them. What has piqued the interest of historians in this case is that so many skulls have been found in one place – and not in a graveyard.

“What we’re looking at here is how the Romans viewed their dead. You wouldn’t imagine modern burial grounds being allowed to wash out into a river.” According to Don Walker, an osteologist (bone expert) from the same museum, the skulls were probably buried in different places, but ended up collecting in the same spot, which could suggest they belonged to social outcasts – or even victims of foul play.

“Forensic studies show that when the body disintegrates near a watercourse, the skull travels furthest, either because it floats or [because] it can roll along the base of the river,” he said. “They were possibly buried in an area where there wasn’t much land available.”

Further tests should be able to identify where the skulls’ owners came from, and even what sort of food they ate. And with plenty more digs to take place before Crossrail’s scheduled completion in 2018-19, archaeologists are optimistic that there are more clues to be found about the secret life of Roman London.




Questions

1.) Who were the Romans?
2.) How did the Romans have a lasting impact on our society?
3.) What is the value in finding out more about past civilizations?
4.) Why does Don Walker believe that the skulls may belong to social outcasts or “victims of foul play”?


Related resources


Archaeological dig

  • Watch how archaeologists work in this BBC Class clips video at an ancient Roman fort.

Archaeology: methods and meanings

  • Introduce the world of archaeology with this explanatory PowerPoint and worksheet.

Dustbin archaeology

  • A creative lesson plan that allows pupils to practise archaeological skills on modern rubbish.

Introduction to the Roman empire

  • Use this lesson presentation to explain who the Romans were and focus on historical key words.

Further news resources


First News front page

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Write all about it

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What is the News?

  • A sociological and media perspective on what makes an event 'newsworthy'.

On the box

  • Help pupils to write their own TV news broadcast with this handy PowerPoint.

Structuring stories

  • A scheme of work to help students structure news stories.

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