Georgie: Vindolanda’s Murder Mystery (c. mid 3rd CE)

Vindolanda is a Roman fort located a short distance from Hadrian’s Wall in northern England. Unlike the nearby fort of Housesteads, which is situated on the wall itself, the task of those stationed at Vindolanda was primarily to protect a major road, the Stanegate, which connected two large Roman towns: Corbridge in the east and Carlisle in the west.

One of the incredible things about Vindolanda today is that anyone can volunteer to dig there and no prior experience of archaeological excavations is necessary (see A few things to note below). Amongst the amazing things one can dig up are shoes (which still retain their leathery smell), weapons and pottery, and hand-written tablets containing army records and even an invitation to a birthday party!

Examples of the Vindolanda Tablets. Source: Wikipedia.

Unfortunately, in 2010, the team excavating beneath the army barracks inside the fort made a less pleasant discovery: a pile of bones. At first, it was assumed that the bones were that of a dog or other domestic animal. Unfortunately, it was soon established that the bones were human.

Careful analysis was carried out by a team at Durham University, led by Dr Trudi Buck, and they discovered that:

  1. The bones belonged to a child (nicknamed Georgie) of between 8-10 years old.
  2. The sex of the child was undetermined.
  3. Georgie lived sometime in the mid-3rd century CE (estimated before 367 CE).
  4. Georgie was not originally from Britain, as analysis of her tooth enamel suggests that she was from southern Europe or north Africa.
  5. Georgie had suffered a traumatic death.

On this last point, Georgie’s wrists had been tied together and it appears that they had suffered a blow to the head, possibly causing a fractured skull. Dr Buck, along with members of the Vindolanda Trust, suspected foul play: Georgie had been murdered.

Georgie’s body was discovered at Vindolanda, a Roman fort close to Hadrian’s Wall.

Where Georgie’s body was found is telling that something untoward took place, as the Romans avoided burying their dead inside their towns and cities. Georgie was buried in a pit underneath the barracks, an unconventional (and unsuitable) location for a burial.

Unfortunately, that’s about all we know of Georgie’s life and premature death and there are so many questions we may never know the answers to**: How did Georgie end up at Hadrian’s Wall from the Mediterranean? Were they enslaved? Was Georgie the child of a soldier? If so, did soldiers regularly bring families on campaign with them?

Whatever the answer to the questions, the discovery of Georgie’s body makes the ancient world very real to all of us. Georgie was someone who lived, travelled thousands of miles from their home (possibly under threat of violence), and died in horrific circumstances. Like Claudia Severa’s birthday party invitation, Georgie is a tangible reminder of how, despite the thousands of years which have gone by, human nature remains much the same. 

**Unless a tablet is unearthed which provides us with details of a child’s disappearance. We can only hope…

A few things to note:

  1. As we don’t know if Georgie was male or female, we’ve cheated a little bit by including them on Ancient Herstories. However, the analysis was carried out by a female academic, Dr Buck. Similarly, we thought Georgie’s story was an important one to include as it raises questions about life on the frontier of the Roman Empire which we shall be discussing in more detail in posts on Claudia Severa.
  2. If you would like to excavate at Roman Vindolanda, there is a small fee which contributes towards the upkeep of the site. During the excavation, you will also need to think about paying for accommodation. However, the Vindolanda Trust does offer a number of bursaries.
  3. Georgie is not the first murder victim to be found on Hadrian’s Wall. In the 1930s, a team of archaeologists discovered the remains of a male and (likely) female. The man was found with the tip of a knife lodged between his ribs, and the pair had been buried under the floor of a domestic building. We shall be looking at this case in more detail in a later post.
Written by EGC

Sources

As of July 2019, Dr Buck is currently working a paper entitled ‘Child in the barracks: Murder on a Roman fort?’. We will keep an eye out for Dr Buck’s publication and update this page accordingly.

Buck, T., Greene, E., Meyer, A., Barlow, V., Graham, E. 2019. The Body in the Ditch: Alternative Funerary Practices on the Northern Frontier of the Roman Empire? Britannia.

The Guardian. Hadrian’s Wall child murder: estimated time of death pre-367AD.

The Journal. Remains of a child found at Vindolanda Roman fort.

Huffington Post. Ancient Roman Remains Hint At 2,000-Year-Old Child Slave Murder.