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Health, diet and living environment in the Roman Empire: the skeletal and funerary evidence

A research project of the Department of Archaeology.


Skeletal analysis is very revealing of the health status of individuals over their life-span. Skeletal indicators of physiological poor health include porotic hyperostosis/cribra orbitalia, enamel hypoplasia, periostitis, long bone growth and stature. Dr. Becky Gowland was recently lead researcher on a British Academy funded project with Professor Peter Garnsey (University of Cambridge) that sought to investigate the health status of the inhabitants of Rome, from their skeletal remains, during the early centuries AD (Life, death and society in Ancient Rome through palaeoanthropology and archaeology). Becky is building on the results of this research through a further collaborative project with Professor Garnsey which critically re-evaluates the evidence for adult stature from the Roman Empire and the implications of this evidence for diet and living environment.

Becky is also undertaking collaborative research with Dr Rebecca Redfern (Museum of London) investigating urban life, identity and immigration in Roman London through the analysis of the skeletal remains of the people who lived there. During the Roman occupation of Britain, London (Londinium) operated as a pivotal conduit between this province and the Empire. Over the past few decades Londinium has been extensively excavated, uncovering substantial cemetery sites displaying rich and varied funerary practices within and around the City. A unique aspect of the cemetery data from Londinium is that it spans the entire duration of Roman occupation. Through anthropological, isotopic and archaeological analysis of burials, we are investigating the population composition, health and social identities of the inhabitants during the development and subsequent demise of this key urban centre. Our findings will make a crucial contribution to the re-development of the Roman gallery at the Museum of London, due for completion in 2015.

Human Bones showing signs of rickets

Published Results

Journal Article

  • Gowland, R L, Chamberlain, A T & Redfern, R C (2013). On the brink of being: re-evaluatng infanticide and infant burial in Roman Britain. Journal of Roman Archaeology Suppelmentary Series
  • Gowland, R. L. & Redfern, R. C. (2010). Childhood health in the Roman World: perspectives from the centre and margin of the Empire. Childhood in the Past: An International Journal 3(1): 15-42.

Chapter in book

  • Redfern, R. C. & Gowland, R. L. (2012). A bioarchaeological perspective on the pre-adult stages of the life course: implications for the care and health of children in the Roman Empire. In Families in the Roman and Late Antique World. Harlow, M. & Larsson Loven, L. Continuum. 111-140.
  • Gowland, R. L. & Garnsey, P. (2010). Skeletal evidence for health, nutritional status and malaria in Rome and the empire. In Roman diasporas; archaeological approaches to mobility and diversity in the Roman Empire. Eckardt, Hella Journal of Roman Archaeology. Supplement 78: 131-156.


From the Department of Archaeology

  • Professor Rebecca Gowland
  • Miss Lindsay Powell
  • Mr William Southwell-Wright