Using burial sites to gauge the effect of Roman conquest on Iron Age Britons

Britain was first invaded by the Romans during the reign of Caesar in 54-55 BC, which began the gradual inevitable process of incorporation into the Empire. However, it wasn’t until AD 43, with the conquest of what is now England under Claudius that social, political and economic changes were enforced in the native populations.

Archaeological investigations show a break in the continuity of Iron Age trends with Roman conquest, especially apparent in burial and mortuary patterns. One important facet of understanding what affect ‘Romanization’ had on the Britons is looking at changes in health patterns, at both a national and regional levels, comparing the effects on different classes and age groups of society. Two studies done by Redfern and DeWitte (2011a, 2011b) and Redfern, Millard and Hamlin (2012) assess the health in the Iron Age and Roman periods of Dorset, England in order to understand how changes connected with conquest affected health. Previous studies by Redfern et al. (2010) on these pre- and post-conquest communities in Dorset showed that there was; increased consumption of marine resources; increased prevalence of dental disease; infectious and metabolic diseases; decreased evidence for trauma; decline in subadult growth; and average male stature did not increase. These more recent studies look closer into demography and mortality, as well as class and age differences in health.


Iron Age cooking at Archeon Park.

Cultural change and Romanization

‘Romanization’, a term which no longer aptly describes Roman conquest and culture change, was a diverse and dynamic process. While there is clear evidence of cultural change in agriculture, religious behavior, social structures and economic patterns, the integration of these into the culture and their incorporation in the Empire varied drastically by the level of occupation and historical tradition. Early notions on the process saw it as a one sided conquest whereby native communities became civilized by Romans. Now the process is seen as multi-dimensional, affecting change in both native and Roman communities, leading to a complete change in cultural patterns in the core and periphery (Webster 2001). The term ‘Romanization’ continues to be used, but with the understanding that the process was more nuanced and variable than previously thought.


Maiden Castle, Dorset, England.

Prior to Roman conquest, Dorset was occupied by various Iron Age tribal communities. There was an extensive trade confederacy between these groups, and each was centered around a hillfort surrounded by a landscape of farmstead and dispersed settlement. They economy was based on mixed agriculture and a focus on land fauna and animal husbandry. There is some degree of burial variation, but primarily they practiced inhumation in pit burials with few grave goods. Dorset was conquered in 43 AD and a Roman army was stationed there in 65 AD. With conquest came the creation of Dorchester (Durononvaria), a Roman style town with wooden houses, straight roads, and bathhouses. Agriculture was improved and intensified, and the population began to incorporate marine resources into the diet. Inhumation continued, although now cemeteries were placed outside of town boundaries (in accordance with Roman law). Burials began to more closely reflect status , with variation in coffin types and increased use of grave goods, although this change is more pronounced in urban rather than rural communities.


Early Romano-British skeleton in Durotrigian style grave 11009, Area 5 Poundbury Farm, Dorset.

Examining the evidence of stress

Redfern and DeWitte (2011a) assessed 518 inhumed individuals; 203 date from the middle and late Iron Age and 315 from the Romano-British period. Using this population sample they assessed changes in mortality based on age and sex, as well as general changes in health. What they found in both samples was the highest risk of mortality was in infants and older adults, although there is an increased risk of mortality for younger adults in the Romano-British sample. Comparison of ‘risk of death’ by sex showed that there was an even risk for males and females during the Iron Age. In the Romano-British period, the risk of mortality for males was much higher than for females. Assessment of pathologies showed that for both periods individuals with pathologies were at a higher risk of mortality, but individuals with stress markers were at higher risk only in the Romano-British period. This suggests overall that Romanization had deleterious effects on health, especially for males and those who suffered stress related pathologies.

Class and health

In their second study, Redfern and DeWitte assess the same population in order to determine whether class and status affects one’s mortality. This was discussed in a previous article: Inequality in the Dead. In their article they argued that there is a correlation between coffin type and status. They assessed 291 individuals from a range of ages and sexes; individuals were ranked based on their coffin and burial type, lowest to highest status: no coffin – wood coffin – lead-lined wood coffin – lead coffin – mausoleum unknown – mausoleum no coffin – mausoleum wood coffin – mausoleum lead-lined wood coffin – mausoleum lead coffin – and mausoleum stone coffin. Overall, they found that there was no clear relationship between health, mortality and status based on coffin type. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a difference in health by class, but more speaks to the fact that burial container may not directly relate to status.


Romano-British stone coffin with damaged lid, Poundbury Farm, Dorchester, Dorset.

Latest studies

Finally, in the most recent article, Redfern, Millard and Hamlin (2012) look at the patterns of health and diet in the sub-adult population. Prior to this, the studies had focused on the adult population, aged over 20. Previous studies by Hamlin showed that there were changes in ‘life-course’ during Romanization.

Sub-adults were more likely to receive a formal burial, but less likely to receive grave goods in the Romano-British period. The sample included 72 Iron Age and 128 Romano-British sub-adults between pre-term and 19 years old. While dental disease remained relatively stable, there was an increase in the Romano-British period of metabolic diseases (like rickets and scurvy).

Stable isotope analysis shows that Iron Age infants were weaned at the later age than Romano-British ones, although this pattern doesn’t fit with more broad Roman practices when compared with sub-adult stable isotope ratios from the Roman population at Isola Sacra. The overall health changes in sub-adults is similar to adults, Romanization led to worsened health and increased risk of mortality.

Understanding the process of Romanization

Studies like these are important because they combine mortuary practices and skeletal analysis with the broader narratives of history. Many studies focus on singular sub-fields or small regions, without consideration about what this means in the grand scheme of history. The goal of archaeology is not to reconstruct the minute practices of individual sites, but rather to more broadly understand human society, change and development over time. Now we just need these studies to be compared against other non-British regions during this period in order to see the variability of Romanization and understand how this process occurred.

Adapted from: (Katy Meyers, Michigan State University)

More information:

  • Redfern, R., & DeWitte, S. (2011a). A new approach to the study of Romanization in Britain: A regional perspective of cultural change in late Iron Age and Roman Dorset using the Siler and Gompertz-Makeham models of mortality American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 144 (2), 269-285
  • Redfern, R., & DeWitte, S. (2011b). Status and health in Roman Dorset: The effect of status on risk of mortality in post-conquest populations American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 146 (2), 197-208
  • Redfern, R., Millard, A., & Hamlin, C. (2012). A regional investigation of subadult dietary patterns and health in late Iron Age and Roman Dorset, England Journal of Archaeological Science, 39 (5), 1249-1259
  • Dr Neil Faulkner (2011), Romanisation: The Process of Becoming Roman