An unusual burial of a Roman soldier, his iron sword, crossbow fibula and spiked shoes, testifying to his profession and rank, were discovered in Wales. He was buried face down in a prone position, and large nails were found on the back of his neck, shoulder, and between his feet. This atypical posture and the presence of nails indicate that he may have been bound with strong shackles before burial.
He was neither a slave nor a criminal, as one might assume in such a pose. He was not thrown into a pit, but carefully placed in a grave carved into the rock, sheathed with wooden boards. The sword found between his legs is a long and straight spar that replaced the short gladius as the standard infantry weapon in the 3rd century AD. A silver crossbow brooch marks him as a person of high position in military or civil administration and is the first of its kind ever discovered in Wales.
Crossbow brooches came into use in late antiquity, from the late 3rd century to the middle of the 6th century AD, in the Western and Byzantine empires. They were worn as cloak fasteners by military and civil servants and became strongly associated with military and civilian power. Richly decorated specimens made of precious metals were presented by Roman emperors as gifts for service to high-ranking imperial officials. The great general and power behind the throne, Flavius Stilicho (AD 365-408) was depicted in it, and the common Roman soldiers picked up the trend, sporting cheaper bronze and copper versions.
An analysis of a soldier’s burial dates it to the 3rd or 4th century. He was between 21 and 25 years old when he died and was suffering from a bacterial mastoid infection at the time of his death. Stable isotope analysis showed that he was not a native of the area. He was born and raised east of Wales.
The grave was discovered in the Vale of Glamorgan in 2017 by Rubicon Heritage Services archaeologists ahead of a road project. It was located in a field used for agriculture during the Roman era, and not in a special cemetery, although four other burials have been discovered at this site. In one of them were the remains of a man who had been cut off his head and laid his head at his feet. Headless and prone burials often occur together.
Researchers began to pay more attention to samples of atypical burials in Western Europe of the Roman period, but so far no single explanation has been found for such burials. Lee it was for low-status individuals, criminals, or those whom their communities wanted to ensure they “remained dead”, cross-cultural burials were never seen as a positive way of getting rid of the deceased.
Thus, this Roman soldier is something of a mystery that may never be solved. “It’s interesting that he was buried face down, but still with his ‘regalia’,” Kollar said. “Raises more questions than answers!”