How did a young man born 2,000 years ago near what is now southern Russia end up in the English countryside?
DNA sleuths retrace his steps while shedding light on a key period in Roman Britain’s history.
Research has shown that the skeleton found in Cambridgeshire is that of a man from a nomadic group known as the Sarmatians.
This is the first biological proof that these people came to Britain from the far reaches of the Roman empire and that some lived in the countryside.
The remains were discovered during excavations to improve the A14 road between Cambridge and Huntingdon.
The scientific techniques used help reveal the often untold stories of ordinary people behind major historical events.
It involves reading the genetic code of fossilized bone fragments that are hundreds of thousands of years old, indicating a person’s ethnic origin.
Archaeologists have discovered a complete, well-preserved human skull, which they have named Offord Cluny 203645 – a combination of the village in Cambridgeshire where he was found and the number of his specimen. He was buried by himself without any personal belongings in a ditch, so there is little to go on to establish his identity.
Dr Marina Silva of the Ancient Genomics Laboratory at the Francis Crick Institute, in London, extracted and decoded Offord’s ancient DNA from a small bone taken from his inner ear, which is the best-preserved part of the whole skull.
“It’s not like testing the DNA of a living person,” he explained.
“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 from the other Romano-British individuals studied so far.”
The latest ancient methods of DNA analysis have now enabled the substance of the human stories behind the events that, until now, have been reconstructed only through documents and archaeological evidence.
It usually tells the stories of the rich and powerful.
The latest research is a detective story that uses cutting edge forensic science to unravel the mystery of an ordinary man – a young man buried in a ditch in Cambridgeshire between 126 and 228 AD, during to the Roman conquest of Britain.
At first, archaeologists thought that Offord was a rare discovery by a local man. But DNA analysis in Dr Silva’s lab showed that he came from the farthest reaches of the Roman Empire, an area that is now southern Russia, Armenia, and Ukraine.
Analysis showed that he was a Sarmatian, an Iranian-speaking people, famous for their horsemanship.
So how did he end up in a sleepy backwater empire so far from home?
To find the answers, a team from Durham University’s archeology department used another exciting analytical technique to examine his fossilized teeth, which contain chemical traces of what he ate.
Teeth develop over time, so like tree rings, each layer records a snapshot of the chemicals surrounding them at that moment in time.
The analysis showed that until the age of six he ate millet and sorghum grains, scientifically known as C4 crops, which are abundant in the region where the Sarmatians are known to have lived.
But over time, the analysis shows a gradual decrease in his consumption of these grains and more wheat, which can be found in western Europe, according to Prof Janet Montgomery.
“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.”
Historical records indicate that Offord may have been the son of a knight, or possibly his slave. They show that during his lifetime, a unit of Sarmatian cavalry attached to the Roman army was stationed in Britain.
DNA evidence confirms this picture, according to Dr Alex Smith of MOLA Headland Infrastructure, the company leading the excavation.
“This is the first biological evidence,” he told BBC News.
“The availability of these DNA and chemical analysis techniques means that we can now ask different questions and see how societies were formed, how they were made and how they developed during the Roman period .
“It suggests that there is a lot more mobility, not only in the cities but also in the countryside.”
Dr Pontus Skoglund, who heads the ancient genomics laboratory at the Crick, told BBC News that new technology is changing our understanding of the past.
“The main impact of ancient DNA so far has been to improve our understanding of the Stone and Bronze Ages, but with better techniques, we are also beginning to change our understanding of the Roman and later periods. “
The details are published in the journal, Current Biology.
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