OVER the past few weeks, the bodies of almost 60 people - men, women, and children - have been discovered buried in shallow graves near Knavesmire.

Thankfully, they're not the victims of some modern-day serial killer. The skeletons are the last mortal remains of Romans who were buried in a cemetery almost 2000 years ago.

They weren't rich Romans, says Ben Savine of the York Archaeological Trust, who has been overseeing the excavations on the site of the former Newington Hotel on Mount Vale Drive, which is being redeveloped. They didn't have expensive tombstones, their coffins were simple wooden affairs, and they were buried to a depth of only about two feet.

But during their lives, they were loved. They were buried with grave goods, such as cheap pottery jars and bowls. "They may have been buried with a meal to aid their initial step into the afterlife," Ben says.

York Press:

The partially-excavated skeleton of an 1,800-year-old Roman, buried with an earthenware pot

We've known for a long time that the Romans tended to bury their dead in cemeteries beside the road outside their towns and cities.

What is now Tadcaster Road once led to the main Roman road connecting York with Lincoln. Wealthier, higher-status Romans would have been buried nearer to the city, where their ornate tombs and headstones (the remains of some of which can be seen in the Yorkshire Museum) would have been visible to passers-by using the road. The poorer Romans would have been buried in simpler graves further out from the city.

The cemetery or cemeteries lining what is now Tadcaster Road would have been in use for probably 200 years. The Newington Hotel site is part of a larger Roman cemetery that was first exposed during excavations led by LP Wenham on nearby Trentholme Drive in the 1950s.

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Flashback to the 1950s, when girls from Bootham School helped out on the original Trentholme Drive dig

In 2005, meanwhile, more than 80 skeletons were found in a dig at Driffield Terrace, further up Tadcaster Road towards town. Several of those skeletons had been decapitated, leading to suggestions they may have been gladiators.

There's nothing so dramatic about the almost 60 skeletons found at the Newington Hotel site. All the evidence suggests these were ordinary men and women who couldn't afford elaborate burials, says Ben. There was no jewellery found with them; very few coins; and even the pottery was mostly cheap earthenware rather than more refined tableware.

Much of it is in very good condition, however. It looks almost unused: suggesting it may have been bought especially for the burial.

York Press:

Field archaeologist George Loffman with a Roman pottery flask found at the Newington Hotel site

The graves are in a pretty chaotic condition, Ben says. Partly that is because the cemetery was in use for so long. The graves at this 'cheaper' end of the cemetery were not well marked - and later burials seem to have cut through earlier ones, disturbing them.

There is also evidence that for centuries, throughout the middle ages, this land was extensively farmed and ploughed. Layers of ploughed soil have been found above the graves, often containing fragments of human bone as well as pottery.

The graves were further disturbed when the late Georgian houses that became the Newington Hotel were built in the 1820s - the houses all had cellars.

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Field archaeologist Guilia Gallio recording a burial

As a result, only about 10 per cent of the skeletons found so far have been intact.

But there is still much that can be learned from them, Ben says: their sex; whether they had been injured or diseased in life; even some details about their diet. Many of the skeletons had striations or marks on their teeth, indicating they were malnourished as children.

Even so, it doesn't appear that there were a very high number of infant deaths: the skeletons found range from infants to children, teenagers and adults.

The skeletons, once unearthed and recorded, are being carefully bagged up and taken for analysis by specialists with York Osteoarchaeology. Hopefully, in due course, we will be able to learn much more from them about the lives of ordinary Romans 1,800 years ago.

The dig at the Newington Hotel, meanwhile, is coming towards an end. But on Thursday (June 22), there will be a unique chance for those interested in seeing archaeologists at work to take part in tours of the site.

You'll be able to watch the dig in process; see some of the grave goods found; chat to archaeologists; and look at photographs.

York Press:

The dig site

And will visitors actually see any of the skeletons?

That depends, says Ben. Those already unearthed have already been taken away. But archaeologists will be working on the site during the visit - so it is possible they may recover more human remains while you're there...

  • Two tours of the Newington Hotel dig will take place place on Thursday June 22: from 1-2pm, and themn from 2-3pm. Tickets are free, but places are limited, so you must book in advance. Visit www.thejorvikgroup.com/tickets then click on 'summer events'.

Those with tickets will be met beside the hoardings outside the front of the former Newington Hotel, which is on the left as you head down Mount Vale towards Knavesmire Road.

The dig is on a construction site, so wear appropriate clothing and footwear.