This report contains an assessment of the Human Remains from the excavation. The report was written by Don Walker of the Museum of London Archaeology, but has been edited for web by Chaz Morse and Guy Hunt. For a full index of the assessment reports, please see the assessment report index.

Site archive: Quantification and description

Class Quantity
Number of contexts 79
Number of Boxes 26 skeleton boxes


The Prescot Street site is one of the last unexplored sectors of the East London Roman cemetery (Richardson 2007). Much of this cemetery had been previously excavated through 11 previous excavations and a watching brief, which described 851 burials (Barber and Bowsher 2000, 1, 8). This report assesses the potential of the human remains recovered from inhumations and cremations at Prescot Street.


MOLA standard procedures were employed to assess the human remains. A record was taken of the completeness (5%-95%) and state of preservation (good (1), medium (2) or poor (3)) of each context, together with an inventory of the body areas present. The skull was considered to represent 20% of the skeleton, the arms and hands 20%, the legs and feet 20% and the torso and pelvis 40%. On the summary catalogue, the skull was scored as ‘1’ if present and ‘2’ if present and sufficiently intact for measurement. The dentition, torso and pelvis were scored as present or absent (1 or 0), while the legs, feet, arms and hands were scored by number present (0, 1 or 2). The minimum number of individuals (MNI) in each context was estimated taking into account the age, sex and morphology of any repeated elements. The presence and nature of any intrusive elements, such as human or animal bone, burnt bone and finds, were noted.

Where appropriate elements were preserved, the age and sex of each individual were estimated. Each was assigned an age-at-death code, based on the eruption of the permanent teeth, with those individuals displaying erupted third molars and/or with appropriate fusion of epiphyses recorded as adults. No further division of adults into age categories was attempted at this stage. Where subadults could not be separated into categories, they were assigned age code ‘12’. A number of contexts were so fragmentary that it was not possible to assign them with certainty to the subadult or adult categories. In such cases, the age of the individual was listed as ‘?’. Biological sex of adults was recorded using morphological features of the pelvis and skull (Buikstra and Ubelaker 1994).

Details of pathological lesions were described in brief and classed by category of disease and if possible specific disease type, according to Powers (2007). All results are subject to adjustment following full analysis.

Condition and disturbance

The majority of the articulated inhumations were moderately preserved (25/44: 56.8%). The remaining 43.2% (19/44) of contexts were scored as ‘poor’. In those cases where the poor state of preservation hindered assessment, context records and label descriptions was employed to determine the number of elements present and the state of articulation.

Twenty-one burial contexts were 20% or less complete (21/44: 47.7%), reflecting the level of truncation in the cemetery. However, there was also a relatively large number of near complete contexts, with 38.6% (17/44) having at least 75% of the skeleton preserved.

Ten individuals (10/44: 22.7%) had bones at least partially covered in concretions. At least 12 (12/44: 27.3%) contexts were found with adhering soil and will require additional processing.

Three contexts contained bones with iron staining, and a further three were associated with iron objects (one nail and two unidentified), the most notable of which was a relatively large pointed object which was found on the feet of adult individual (1719). Two contexts had signs of possible copper alloy staining. Possible female (1831) was found with an unusually shaped stone object.

Minimum number of individuals

Of the 79 contexts of unburnt human bone, 44 were articulated burials. Forty-one of these contained a minimum number of one individual and three a minimum number of two individuals. Therefore, the MNI of articulated individuals from Prescot Street was 47 (41 + 6).

There were 35 disarticulated deposits containing a minimum of one individual each. Disarticulated contexts (1706) and (2049) both contained large number of bones from what appeared to be single individuals, and probably represent secondary burials.


Of the 44 articulated contexts from Prescot Street, 39 could be assigned age and sex codes (see below). Only three of these were subadults (3/39: 7.7%). There were no perinatal bones in either the articulated or disarticulated assemblages.

Biological sex could be assigned to 17 adults. Twelve of these were male (12/17: 70.6%) and 5 female (5/17: 29.4%), a male/female ratio of 2.4:1. Five individuals were too fragmentary even to discern whether they were subadult or adult.


The crude prevalence rates for pathology cited in this section are subject to change once full analysis is completed. Further details of pathological changes are noted in the appendix.

Circulatory disease

A single possible male adult (1728) exhibited a punched out lesion, typical of osteochondritis dissecans, on the talar facet of the navicular. This condition results from osteochondral fracture leading to the separation of a bone fragment, and has been linked to trauma and ischemia (Aufderheide and Rodríguez-Martín 1998, 81–2; Resnick 2002, 2689–90). The adult crude prevalence rate of circulatory disease at Prescot Street was 2.8% (1/36), and 2.3% (1/44) for the total sample.

Congenital anomalies

Adult individual (1719) and adult male (1751) have bilateral separation at pars interarticularis in the fifth lumbar vertebra. This is a condition called spondylolysis which affects between 2.3 and 10% of individuals in modern populations (Resnick 2002, 3003). It may have a congenital predisposition and has been linked to fatigue stress in the lower back (Merbs 1983, 35, 39). These are the only individuals with evidence of congenital anomalies (2/36: 5.6% of adults, 2/44: 4.5% of total sample).

Infectious disease

Ten adult individuals (9/36: 25%) had evidence of non-specific periostitis. In all cases, one or more lower leg bones were affected. Male adult (1812) also had periostitis on the left femur and a right rib. Periosteal new bone originates from the protective layer of periosteum which encases bones. It has been associated with a variety of diseases, including infection, trauma, scurvy, venous stasis, secondary hypertrophic osteoarthropathy and neoplastic disease (Resnick 2002, 4884; Ortner 2003, 88).

Adult individual (1668) had a second right metatarsal with an expanded shaft, possibly the result of infection of the medullary cavity (osteomyelitis).

Adult female (1776) had spinal lesions characteristic, but not pathognomonic of the bony changes in tuberculosis (Aufderheide and Rodríguez-Martín 1998, 135). The vertebral elements were well preserved and presented fine well defined lytic (destructive) lesions in some of the thoracic centra.

Overall, 10 individuals (10/44: 22.7% (10/36: 27.8% of adults) had skeletal evidence of infectious disease.

Joint disease

Twelve adult individuals (12/36: 33.3%) had pathological changes in the joints of the spine (12/44: 27.3% of all individuals). These included osteophytes, intervertebral disc disease and osteoarthritis in the apophyseal joints. Eight individuals had Schmorl’s nodes, which form in the articular surfaces of the cartilaginous joints. These lesions result from herniation of the intervertebral disks. They are commonly found in individuals over 45 years of age and can be caused by trauma, Scheuermann’s disease, osteoporosis and skeletal metastases (Resnick 2002, 1430).

There was no evidence of extra-spinal joint disease.


Evidence of trauma was found in three adults (3/36: 8.3% of adults, 3/44: 6.8% of total sample). The partially preserved left tibia of 1296 had a possible healed fracture that may also have affected the fibula. The isolated nature of the aforementioned osteomyelitic lesion in the second right metatarsal of adult 1668 suggests that it may have been secondary to an injury, possibly an open fracture or a puncture wound. The right fibula of adult (1918) had an exostosis at its proximal end, possibly the result of a soft tissue injury. However, radiography will be required to distinguish this from an osteochondroma.

Dental health

Twenty-one individuals (21/44: 47.7%) displayed evidence of dental disease. One hundred and seven adults (19/36: 52.8%) and 27 subadults (2/3: 66.7%) were affected. Prevalence rates by observable dentitions are listed below.

Ante-mortem tooth loss was found in three individuals (/28: 10.7%) with observable dentitions.

Other disorders

Cribra orbitalia was identified in 2 individuals (2/44: 4.5%), both adult males (2/12: 16.7% of males). One of these individuals, together with another adult, had porotic hyperostosis (2/44: 4.5%). Cribra orbitalia may be caused by iron deficiency anaemia resulting from blood loss, gastrointestinal infection or inadequate diet (Roberts and Cox 2003, 234). Recent work has linked both cribra orbitalia and porotic hyperostosis to megaloblastic anaemia in nursing infants, possibly through a vitamin B12 deficient diet as a result of maternal depletion and/or gastrointestinal infection (Walker et al, 2009, 119).

Potential of the data

Valuable information can be gained from the analysis of inhumed and cremated human remains from Roman cemeteries. This is particularly the case when large areas of substantial burial grounds are investigated. The work at Prescot Street will augment that from previous studies of the burial area known as the ‘East London Roman cemetery’ and add to the existing corpus of 851 burials (Barber and Bowsher 2000, 8). However, further recording work will be required before synthesis of data from all sites can take place.

General discussion of potential

The inhumations consisted of both primary and secondary burials. Standard MOLA practice is to fully record articulated skeletons from primary deposits. However, the assessment of bone from two disarticulated, contexts (1706), and (2049), suggests that these were secondary burials of single individuals. Both contexts should be fully recorded. This not only increases the sample size but may provide clues to the motives for secondary burial.

In the articulated sample, there were only three subadults and no perinates. Clustering of infant burials has been found in other Roman cemeteries in London, so it is possible that the location of their burial remains undiscovered (McKenzie and Thomas in prep). Alternatively, they may have been buried in shallow graves, less likely to escape truncation in later periods. Low numbers of infants were found in the other excavated areas of the Eastern Cemetery, with differential mortuary treatment cited as one of the possible explanations (Barber and Bowsher 2000, 279, 312–3).

A further common feature of urban Roman burials in Britain is the low proportion of female individuals reflected in the male/female ratio of 2.4:1 at Prescot Street. As with infant burials, this may reflect burial practice rather than a low proportion of females in the local population (ibid).

As with burials from other areas of the Eastern Cemetery, there is a great deal of variation in the inhumations. The investigation of the age, sex and possibly the health of individuals with ‘anomalous’ rites may aid the interpretation of these burials. The majority of the burials at Prescot Street were supine and extended. Notable variation in burial rite included adult female (1723), who was found in a crouched position, lying on her right side. Adult (1708) was only partially preserved but may also have been crouched. The skull and upper torso of subadult (1834 ) was covered in chalk, while chalk fragments were also found in the grave of adult individual (1296). The skull of context (1083) was found resting on a tile. The remainder of the skeleton had disintegrated.

There is potential for the investigation of health in the sample from Prescot Street. Skeletal evidence of infection is plentiful, with a quarter of the sample displaying signs of non-specific periostitis. An important and rare find is that of an individual suspected of suffering from a specific infection, possibly tuberculosis. The skeletal lesions are well preserved for a burial from a Roman context in London, and this will aid diagnosis. Further work, possibly involving microbiological analysis (DNA), may identify the disease and help to map its evolution and distribution in the Roman period. Spinal joint disease and Schmorl’s nodes may be a consequence of ageing.

Once the adult individuals have been aged it will be possible to identify individuals or groups whose joints deteriorated prematurely, either as a result of activity, trauma or some other disease process. The evidence of bone fracture from Prescot Street will add to the existing corpus of data on trauma, and will contribute to the study of injury mechanism and fracture treatment in Roman London. The analysis of dental disease will provide information on diet. It may also give an indication of the number of individuals who suffered stress or nutritional deficiency in childhood, as may cribra orbitalia.

Significance of the data

Regional significance

The assemblage is of regional significance in the study of Roman funerary customs in southern Britain. The example of specific infection, possibly tuberculosis, may provide important information on the origins and spread of a disease that is rarely encountered in Roman cemeteries.

Local significance

The assemblage is of local significance as it will add to information on the structure and palaeodemography of the population buried in the ‘East London Cemetery’.