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Museum scans reveal new clues to life and death in Roman London

An innovative method of scanning bones is improving our understanding of child mortality in Roman Britain.

The study, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, was led by a team of researchers from the Natural History Museum, the Museum of London and Durham University.

Its results suggest that stillborn and young infants in Roman London were buried in cemeteries with everyone else, rather than being treated differently.

In addition, it could mean that many other infants found at Romano-British sites may have been stillborn, and not victims of infanticide as previously believed.

Londoners' health

The findings also offer an insight into the health of Londoners thousands of years ago, giving researchers a new way to investigate the rates of stillbirths in Roman London.

Natural History Museum researcher Dr Thomas Booth, co-author of the study, says:  'Distinguishing between the remains of stillborn and liveborn infants is an important way for archaeologists to judge the health of past populations and to understand how past societies regarded these young deaths.

'Many cultures, both past and present, had ideologies that led them to treat these deaths differently. This can be seen relatively recently in the exclusion of unbaptised infants from Catholic cemeteries, and it's been argued in the past that the Romans had similar beliefs.

'Our work suggests that stillborn babies in Roman London were treated in the same way as everyone else.'

Four images of bones reconstructed from CT scans

Images (a) and (b) show a bone with bioerosion, while images (c) and (d) show one without. On the left are cross-section images, and on the right are 3D reconstructions built from many cross-sectional images.


Bacterial clues

Using X-ray microtomography (micro-CT) equipment in the Museum's Imaging and Analysis Centre, the researchers scanned ten infant Romano-British skeletons. These skeletons were found in cemeteries around London and are cared for in the Museum of London's collection.

The scans allowed researchers to generate 3D computer models of the bones, which they examined for signs of post-mortem damage caused by gut bacteria - a phenomenon known as bioerosion. Gut bacteria only develop gradually after birth, meaning that the bones of children and adults show signs of bioerosion, but the bones of stillborn infants do not.

The 3D models revealed that many of the bones were relatively undamaged, suggesting that they belonged to stillborn infants.

Since these infants were found in cemeteries, this implies that Roman Britons treated their deaths in the same way as the deaths of other people.

The findings also point towards a new way of investigating the health of historical populations, explains Dr Booth: 'Although we may know a lot about the living conditions of historical eras, this doesn't tell us everything about how healthy people were. Looking at stillbirth rates gives us a strong indicator of maternal health and well-being.

'By using this technique, we can estimate how common stillbirths might have been, even for periods where we lack detailed medical records. Comparing these rates to modern rates, or rates from other eras, we can get a much better idea of how healthy the population was.'

This 3D computer model of a Roman child's bone, reconstructed from micro-CT scans, reveals signs of erosion by gut bacteria


Trailblazing technique

The study also highlights the growing importance of micro-CT scanning in research.

Until recently, the most common test for bioerosion involved cutting open bone samples to look at the internal structure in cross-section under a microscope. This damages the skeleton for future research, and limits the test to a small section that may not be representative of the whole bone.

In contrast, micro-CT scanning allows scientists to examine the entire bone without causing any damage, making it a valuable tool for archaeological research.

'The ability to more accurately differentiate between stillborn and short-lived infants, without having to alter precious archaeological skeletons, will profoundly impact on the study of past human life and the study of infanticide in both archaeological and forensic contexts,' comments Dr Booth.

Dr Rebecca Redfern, co-author from the Museum of London, adds: 'The research really highlights the importance of multidisciplinary and collaborative projects to uncover new knowledge.

'We can now apply this research to infant skeletons in our collection from periods other than Roman London to investigate mortality risks and how these relate to London's ever-changing environment and population.'