Digging For Britain: Tragic Roman secrets in Buckinghamshire

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I think one of the most exciting things about the Digging For Britain series is that it shows archaeology in action.

Rather than just presenting history as a series of accepted facts we're seeing how the interpretation develops, during excavations and careful analysis in the lab.

Excavations we've been following in the series that have also hit the news include the discovery of the massive hoard of Roman coins in Frome, and the bizarre and chilling evidence of infanticide from the Yewden Roman villa site in Buckinghamshire.

Both these discoveries are featured in detail in episode one, Romans. The Yewden Roman Villa site was excavated ages ago - in 1912 - but archaeologist Jill Eyers has been taking a fresh look at the finds from that dig.

She knew there had been numerous infant burials around the site - 97 in total. In fact, infant 'burial' sounds a bit too respectful for what had actually been found - the remains of infants shoved unceremoniously into pits in the ground.

When Jill found the infant bones themselves in the museum stores, she sent them to Simon Mays, human osteologist at English Heritage.

He ascertained that all the infants had died around the time of birth - and suddenly the burials seemed even more suspicious.

Ninety seven infants all dying at birth: death from natural causes was now extremely unlikely.

When I looked at the bones, I also spotted what looked like cut-marks on one of them - the infant's body may have been dismembered. A horrible thought. It's very sad to think about those 97 little babies who never got the chance to grow up.

And so it does look like those babies were put to death. We know the Romans practised infanticide, but this was baby-killing on a massive scale.

Jill thought the villa may have been a brothel. It's an interesting hypothesis, and one which may stand the test of further investigations as Jill continues to explore the mystery of Yewden Villa.

As a new mum myself, I felt the sadness around Yewden particularly intensely. I'm so used to looking at human remains but these little skeletons were so much more than just objects: they were telling us a dark secret from the past, and they were all that was left of those tiny human lives that were extinguished so brutally.

Were they unloved and unnamed when they were placed in the ground? Or - perhaps even worse - had they been eagerly awaited by their mothers but born into a society that thwarted that natural love and protective urge? What had those mothers gone through?

I'm not an archaeologist myself, but I'm certainly allied to the field in a number of ways. I'm an anatomist and an osteoarchaeologist, or human bone expert, and I've specialised in looking at disease in old bones.

I've had a strange career path, I suppose, but I've enjoyed every minute of it. Starting as a medical doctor, I branched off to teach clinical anatomy and study old bones, and ending up working in television and writing books. I still teach anatomy and look at the odd skeleton, though.

My favourite moment from the series was being able to look at the skeletons from the Mary Rose, which features in the Tudor programme, the final episode.

I clearly remember watching the ship being raised on Blue Peter. And more recently, I had wanted to look at the skeletons for my PhD, which was about problems around the shoulder joint (I suspected the Mary Rose archers might have suffered from something called rotator cuff disease - which afflicts a lot of us in old age, but also affects athletes like cricket bowlers and baseball pitchers in their youth), but I had to stop somewhere.

So this was a really special opportunity for me to check the shoulders of a couple of the individuals from the ill-fated ship.

You'll have to watch the series to see what I found, but now I want to look at all of them. This was one of the great things about doing this series. I was making a television programme but also getting to indulge my own curiosity - meeting fascinating people, seeing interesting sites, and being able to examine ancient artefacts and bones.

Dr Alice Roberts is the presenter of Digging For Britain.

Digging For Britain
is on Thursdays at 9pm on BBC Two and at different times on BBC HD. You can watch the first episode on the BBC iPlayer.

To find out all future episodes of Digging For Britain, please visit the upcoming episodes page.

For more information on Roman history, please visit the BBC History site.

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  • Comment number 30. Posted by nico

    on 21 Feb 2011 00:03

    i feel like i am in victorian england when i read this disclaimer.
    i am disgusted by the envy and jealousy the BBC has for the civilised roman empire.
    the problem was in the 18 th century when victorian scholars realised that if they spoke the truth about how greco roman social welfare far exceeded that of victorian england, then they would have to surrender to the ideal and model of roman law prevailent in europe at that time.
    i am disgusted by the fabrications and bbc series on the evils and corruptions of roman society.
    romans did not kill 2 million babies through abortion in a year like england does today/
    the romans had infanticide only through unfortunate economic situations--it was not a wide practice that these english scholars would have you believe.
    victorian infanticide was way worst than any roman infanticide and this can be deduced from the sources.
    2 everyone in roman society had access to the annonia free bread distribution and water sewerage and water distribution technologies. woman in victorian society had to sell themselves to afford a loaf of bread where the romans granted in out for free. they protected anyone from going into poverty and this is even the policy of the worst roman emperors.
    this meant less diseases in roman society because western europe did not have proper sewerage systems until 19th century france-- nor proper social welfare like the romans before christianity.
    this is significant to the history of social welfare in europe.
    3 education was for all, including slaves- or the correct translation, the workers yoylos, they could go to the baths, they had basic rights, they could own land and some slaves who became emanicipated wanted to remain so, because they had less responsible than if they were citizens.
    in victorian society, education was only for the upper class. in byzantium all girls and boys and even slaves as the church protected them, could learn to read and write. education was not a class brand as that what occured in england latter on

    of course universities were to distort roman history so that the public did not know that in rome, they had it so much better.
    their is no way rome would have had 80,000 prostitutes or even crammed in poverty conditions.
    the few sources that infer it suggest, it was highly discouraged and that the prefect would try to prevent the woman from becoming one. so their were few in roman times and even less in byzantium, which had reform homes, orphanages,{ not like the ones in england that made children work as slaves but true philanthropic ones}

    medicine was superior in rome than in 19 th century england and even argued for today.
    the use of herbal medicine that not incite a witch hunt as it does today by the new priesthood of doctors, who have been given a divine priestly authority to dispense with ineffective and sometimes harmful medical practices.
    in 18 century--doctors inadvertedly killed the patient, through lack of hygiene, lack of knowledge on anasthetic that the greeks and romans already practiced hygiene thousands of years before.
    other medieval practices and torture in western europe and britain like libobotomy in mental asylums, or surgically playing with the brain to reap results was prevailent as a form of social control. legacy of feudalism.
    in latter roman times, execution was forbidden and jails were considered cruel.
    but not in 19th century england.

    so , in the light of roman civilisation let us be grateful, that although at times roman society expressed certain brutalities, never did it match medieval europe in its brevity and numbers. torture was common place after the barbarians took civilised europe.
    i wonder if the british left an aquaduct for the poor indians in the colonial times


    so in education, social welfare, access to sanitation and water and medicine were all more superior then than now. believe it or not.


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  • Comment number 29. Posted by Fiona Wickham - BBC TV blog editor

    on 30 Sept 2010 10:50

    Hello again,

    If you'd like to watch Digging For Britain, there are sign language versions of episodes 1 and 2 currently available to watch and download in iPlayer.

    The Romans is here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00tj7rp/sign/Digging_for_Britain_The_Romans/

    And Prehistory is here:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00tkz4j/sign/Digging_for_Britain_Prehistory/

    Thanks

  • Comment number 28. Posted by Fiona Wickham - BBC TV blog editor

    on 29 Sept 2010 16:10

    Hello jstone - comments 26 and 27. Sorry about the conflicting iPlayer info on the programme page. I'm the editor of the TV blog so I'm not directly involved with Digging For Britain - however, I have contacted the tech teams about the webpage, as it's clearly not right at the moment.

    Thanks for pointing this out to us - I will comment again on here when the tech teams have resolved it.

    Meanwhile, a good link to know about is the iPlayer help website, where you can get a question answered and contact the iPlayer tech team directly.

    Thanks
    Fiona

  • Comment number 27. Posted by jstone

    on 29 Sept 2010 11:49

    Can't ANYONE involved with this series respond and sort out the continuing false info being given at the programme site.

    As already stated, and still applicable, ROMANS and now PREHISTORY programmes are STILL being shown as "available for 21 days" but refuse to play.

    How much of a fan of programme must one be to spend so much time just trying to watch it?

    PLEASE pay attention and sort the matter out.

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  • Comment number 26. Posted by jstone

    on 28 Sept 2010 09:04

    28 9 2010
    Can you get the IPLAYER people to correct their broadcast information. The series opener is being shown on the series site as "available for 22 days" and listings too.

    But the programme CANNOT be played as the play window states "no longer available".

    If it really is too late, then hard luck on me for missing it earlier BUT it is SO annoying having to spend ages clicking links etc on the promise of being ABLE to watch and then finding it was ALL A WASTE OF TIME.

    Surely the programme makers can control how their product is being handled?

    This has happened with so many other programmes but BBC IPLAYER staff "fail to learn from history".

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  • Comment number 25. Posted by ashley

    on 22 Sept 2010 16:22

    Hi...
    really enjoyed the program and really liked the music! Could someone please tell me what it was and who by
    Regards Ash

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  • Comment number 24. Posted by ashley

    on 22 Sept 2010 16:21

    Hi really enjoyed the program and really liked the music! Could someone please tell me what it was and who by
    Regards Ash

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  • Comment number 23. Posted by AskME

    on 12 Sept 2010 21:34

    Good grief! didnt anyone watch this before it was broadcast.
    The chap who makes the very basic history mistake of Henry VIII wives
    comment should have been edited out, especially as he made it twice, about the same Queen! if only to save his blushes.

    He also says later on about the hazelnut shells being "like their popcorn"
    which has been for some time thought to be untrue, and the Globe Theater
    had so many thousands of shells because they were a by product, and used as a flooring material in front of the stage.

    Also no artist used for reconstructions, I would have had a go! if they are so expensive? or hard to find?

    I am glad they did the Tudor period though.

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  • Comment number 22. Posted by cassandra777

    on 11 Sept 2010 15:17

    Alice, you are a great lady, but in your Anglo Saxon programme you seemed to lose your head over the glamour of the art objects and warrior iconography. What happened to the women? At one point you had loom weights actually on the screen but you did not take advantage of this to follow through onto the power of the weaving women who were the wealth of the land - let alone mention the Abbesses Hilda, Seaxburga, Ethelburga etc etc, let alone Audrey Meaney's 'cunning women' as evidenced from pagan grave goods. Even your skellies were male! I know you have to relate to current excavations - but nevertheless shame on you for using the Anglo Saxons to reinforce a WASP mythology.

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  • Comment number 21. Posted by RDM

    on 10 Sept 2010 23:20

    The Tudors. There was no such place as Tudor Britain. "The Tudors used a potent symbol to stamp their authority on Britain" says Dr A Roberts. Why does the BBC not edit out this offensive ethnocentrism?

    Comments must not be racist etc, but BBC programmes may be, it seems. Misrepresenting history is to offend on the grounds of nationality or race.

    RDM

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