Remains of a man buried near a rural farmstead in Roman Britain may hold the first genetic evidence for the presence of Iranian-speaking Sarmatians in the province, according to scientists.
The bones of the man, who lived sometime between 126 and 228AD and died in early adulthood, were found in 2017 during excavations for the A14 road improvement scheme near the village of Offord Cluny in Cambridgeshire.
The man, known as Offord Cluny 203645, was buried alone without any personal possessions in a trackway ditch, so little could be inferred without scientific analysis. Now, in a study published in Current Biology, researchers from Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA), the Francis Crick Institute and Durham University, show that he grew up over 1,000 miles away and carried ancestry related to Sarmatians and other ancient inhabitants of the Caucasus.
The nomadic Sarmatians spoke a Middle Iranian language and were renowned horse riders who lived around today’s southern Russia and Ukraine before some groups moved south and west. Herodotus claimed, fancifully, that they were descended from unions of Scythian men and Amazon female warriors.
The skeleton in Cambridgeshire was moderately well preserved. Marina Silva, Postdoctoral Fellow in the Ancient Genomics Laboratory at the Francis Crick Institute, and first author of the study, said: “We began by extracting and sequencing ancient DNA (aDNA) from the bone of the individual’s inner ear, as this is where it is best preserved. This is not like testing the DNA of someone who is alive, as the DNA is very fragmented and damaged. However, we were able to sequence enough of his DNA to good quality and compared it to samples of people who lived at different times and places in the past.
“The first thing we saw was that genetically he was very different to the other Romano-British individuals studied so far. In fact, our analysis showed that he had common ancestors with previously studied individuals from the Caucasus and Sarmatian groups.
“It was definitely a surprise. We had no expectations at all and no idea this would be the result we would get. It was really nice when we went back to MOLA and shared our results. Then we got the results from the isotopes and saw that they matched so well. Combining different lines of evidence and types of analysis, we can get to a much richer story about a person. We wouldn’t know any of this from his burial alone, so we really need all these different types of research to come together.”
The Offord Cluny man’s DNA resembles that of ancient remains of both Sarmatians and Armenians. Based on current knowledge, the team said that he appeared to have ancestry from the two groups. In the study, they note that there may have been substantial genetic diversity among Sarmatians, with some carrying Armenian ancestry.
Genetic testing alone could not confirm that the man was born outside Britain, as it might have been his parents who moved, so the team turned to other analysis. Researchers from the Department of Archeology at Durham University looked at isotopes — forms of the elements carbon, nitrogen, strontium, and oxygen — from his teeth, to infer the environment he grew up in and how his diet changed throughout his life.
Professor Janet Montgomery of Durham University said: “The isotopes tell us that he, and not his ancestors, made the journey to Britain. Until the age of five or six, he lived in an arid location in the east of continental Europe. His diet at this age contained a lot of C4 crops, such as millet and sorghum, which are not native to Europe. As he grew up, he migrated west, and these plants disappeared from his diet. We have speculated for several years where the few people we find in Roman Britain with C4 diets could have come from and now we have an answer!”
Significantly, in 175AD, Emperor Marcus Aurelius defeated a Sarmatian army on the northeastern border of the Roman Empire and incorporated their cavalry into Rome’s. According to the historian Cassius Dio (circa 163–235), he sent around 5,500 of these Sarmatian cavalrymen, members of the Iazyges tribe living around modern-day Hungary and Slovakia, to Britain.
Dio claimed that the philosopher-emperor had originally wished to exterminate the Iazyges, saying: “For that they were still strong at this time and had done the Romans great harm was evident from the fact that they returned a hundred thousand captives that were still in their hands even after the many who had been sold, had died, or had escaped, and that they promptly furnished as their contribution to the alliance eight thousand cavalry, fifty-five hundred of whom he sent to Britain.”
The team radiocarbon dated the Offord Cluny burial to the second to early third centuries, so this deployment could be a possible explanation for his arrival in Britain. If so, given that he was a child when he moved, it seems likely that he was the son or other relative of a cavalryman, though he may have gone on to serve in the same role.
Alex Smith, post-excavation manager for MOLA Headland Infrastructure, which dug the remains, said: “The isotopic analysis shows this individual was clearly young at the time he began his journey across the Roman Empire. This ties into previous burial evidence from Britain which suggests entire families may have joined the 5,500 members of the Sarmatian cavalry sent to Britain by Marcus Aurelius.
“Did this young man grow up to become part of this cavalry unit? We can’t say, because we don’t have any finds or objects from his grave that connect him to either the Roman army, or the Sarmatians. Generally, we have very limited evidence for the Sarmatians stationed in Britain. We know they were likely on Hadrian’s Wall, and at Catterick in North Yorkshire, but they may well have been divided across the country. If this young man was part of the cavalry, then perhaps he died on route to a military site.”
Little is known about where Dio’s Sarmatians were stationed in Britain. There are suggestions of Sarmatian horse equipment from Chesters on Hadrian’s Wall and epigraphic evidence for them from Ribchester, Bremetennacum Veteranorum, in northwest England and Catterick, Cataractonium, in northeast England — all a considerable distance from Cambridgeshire. Some authors have claimed that the presence of Sarmatian cavalary in Roman Britain inspired the stories of King Arthur, although this is not generally accepted. It has also been suggested that Sarmatians may have brought over mounts that were ancestral to Yorkshire’s Cleveland Bay horses.
If the Offord Cluny man was not, in fact, connected to the deployment mentioned by Dio, the team said another plausible explanation was that he was enslaved before being brought to Britain. This might account for his spartan burial outside of nearby formal cemeteries. These types of isolated burials are found fairly regularly on Roman farmstead sites and while they suggest the individuals treated this way were “special” in some way, it is unclear whether this was positive or negative.
Osteological analysis of the remains suggest that he died aged 18–25. Although there were some indications of minor trauma in the past, there was nothing to suggest a cause of death.
The study is further evidence for far-reaching connections right across the Roman empire and beyond its frontiers. Historical, archaeological and biochemical evidence all show that people of diverse origins inhabited Roman Britain, including people from Africa and the Middle East.
Whatever the background to his journey, Silva said it was especially exciting to find the Offord Cluny man in a rural location. “We know that people moved around in Roman times — we know this from historical sources but also from isotopes and DNA analysis from urban centres from cities or archaeological sites associated with the Roman military, but finding him in a peripheral region of the empire, but also a rural location, is very interesting.”
The image at the top of the article shows archaeologists excavating the Offord Cluny burial. Photo: © MOLA Headland Infrastructure