Burnt body discovered in Roman oven

By Caroline Lewis 11/08/2006

The skeleton in situ. © Naomi Payne

Archaeologists have found some unusual burnt remains in a Roman corn-drying oven at Sedgeford in Norfolk: human remains.

The mysterious burnt body was discovered during work at the Roman agricultural processing plant, being carried out as part of the Sedgeford Historical and Archaeological Project.

Foul play seems highly likely.

On-site human remains expert Zannah Baldry explained that most of an adult skeleton was in the oven. “The body appears to have been pushed into the oven,” she said, “which was then set alight.”

The possible Roman murder victim was never found at the time. When the plant fell out of use, the roof of the oven collapsed and the site was covered over, leaving the crime undetected for more than 1,500 years.

The oven was last used in the 4th century AD, when grain was brought to Sedgeford to be dried and stored before export. The grain was probably grown on an industrial scale at a large villa estate and stored in large barns. Corn-dryers were high-tech systems with ovens, flues and rake-out pits, and quite common in late Roman countryside.

Bodies in corn ovens are far less common.

The body must have been burnt in the oven. © Naomi Payne

"A discovery like this is very rare,” said project director and Roman expert Dr Neil Faulkner, “but such things are not completely unknown. Bodies have occasionally been dropped down wells, hidden in central-heating ducts, or dumped in roadside ditches.”

“The body in the Sedgeford corn-drying oven seems to be another example. Presumably they represent a breakdown of the old Roman order.”

The skeleton will be lifted and studied by human remains specialists, who will attempt to establish the person’s age, sex, and perhaps the cause of death. Bone samples will be sent for radiocarbon dating.

“Who was this person?,” asked Dr Faulkner. “We can only speculate. Perhaps a tax collector or the landlord’s bailiff – a hate figure of the old regime. Or maybe this was just a casual crime, an old score settled, in a world where the chances of getting caught were less.”

Work is continuing on the site for another week, and archaeologists will return next summer to continue their investigations on the site as a whole.

One of my favorite area's of study is the Roman Empire during it's long fall. How some of it fall on it's head, other times parts functioned while other parts dissappeared all together, and I think finds like this may at least be able to tell us a little of the anarachy or troubled times during this time.

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