Gloucester’s Roman mass grave skeletons were plague victims

From the 24 Hour Museum: Gloucester’s Roman mass grave skeletons were plague victims.

A mass Roman grave, discovered in Gloucester in 2005, may have contained the victims of an acute disease of epidemic proportions, possibly plague.

This is the startling conclusion to a new report by Oxford Archaeology and archaelogical consultancy CgMs, who have been conducting an 18-month programme of scientific study on the grave, which contained around 91 skeletons.

The discovery of a mass grave of Roman date is almost unparalleled in British archaeology and archaeologists now believe the remains were of individuals who had been thrown in over a short period of time during the late 2nd or early 3rd century AD.

"The skeletons of adult males, females, and children were lying in a very haphazard fashion, their bones completely entangled, reflecting the fact that they [continue]

6 thoughts on “Gloucester’s Roman mass grave skeletons were plague victims

  1. The article seems careless. One paragraph argues that the bodies may have been victims of the Antonine plague, suggesting that this may have been smallpox, which I believe is the favoured hypothesis. The next paragraph talks about the pathology of Plague “which kills quickly”. Smallpox actually kills quite slowly, although it dosn’t, as far as I know, leave any indications on skeletal material. So what disease are they actually talking about?

    Is there any evidence of plague as such – the bubonic infection carried by Yersinia pestis in Europe before the 1340s?

  2. The Justinian plague (later, 541-542) is generally considered the work of Yersinia pestis. I’ve also mostly read that the Antonine plague was smallpox or measles, so yes, good point there.

  3. I may have to agree with Chris Y in questioning this article. A mass grave (45 headless, Roman-era skeletons) were found in York, England, and this site has been extensively studied. The conclusion may be that these skeletons are the remains of executed Roman soldiers. More info: “Secrets of the Dead: The Headless Romans” DVD and the Jorvik Museum in York.

  4. Sean, if the Justinian plague was Y.pestis, where did it go for the next 800 years? After the 1340s it was endemic in Europe until the 18th century, but the impact of that outbreak doesn’t look like something that had been around for 30 generations. I’m not criticising, just curious.

  5. I’m no disease pathologist, so don’t take this as truth! But the only explanation I’ve read, and it’s a hypothesis, is that Y pestis has a gene (yes, the bacterium, not the host, has the gene) called PDL which allows it to survive and reproduce in digestive tracts. If this gene mutates out, then the bacterium can’t survive in the intestinal tract and is flushed out.

    The study I read (Joseph Hinnebusch) claimed that Y pestis is created by the mutation of a relatively innocuous soil-borne bacterium called Y pseudotuberculosis into Y pestis by the introduction of the PDL gene and eventual ingestion by rats.

    As far as what triggers that mutation, ?? I don’t think the researchers know.

    If you can find Hinnebusch’s findings you may want to read them over as it’s been quite a while since I delved into this, and I may be misremembering things.

  6. This is fascinating. I must try to blog more articles that have errors, and maybe then there will be more comments as interesting as these.

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