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Students unearth five skeletons in ‘major’ Roman find

Bournemouth University / Durotriges Big Dig

9 July, 2014

Five skeletons have been unearthed from a burial site that could change our understanding of Roman history – and the careers of the archaeology students who discovered them. 

We meet Demi Wiskerke, 18, from the Netherlands and Jessica Fangmann, 19, from Germany, first year BSc students at Bournemouth University who are digging down into history… literally.

‘It was yellowish, not perfectly white. We weren’t actually sure it was human, because we could only see a bit of it sticking out.

‘But then we kept trowelling and realised it was a pelvis. Once you realise what it is, you just know.’

Jessica Fangmann – along with a group of around 85 other students, many of them undergraduates in their teens like herself – has spent the past few days lifting human bones out of the ground that have lain undiscovered for over 1,600 years.

Big Dig Bournemouth
'Significant finds': Students and experts work together to lift the bones out of the ground and package them for analysis (Picture: Bournemouth University / Durotriges Big Dig)

Thanks to her degree in Archaeological, Anthopological and Forensic Sciences, Jessica is part of a discovery that has been described as ‘hugely significant’ by archaeology experts.

While excavating near a Roman villa in Dorset in southwest England – a fieldwork activity for those studying archaeology at Bournemouth University – staff and students discovered the graves of the family who would have lived in the villa around 350 AD.

This was the first time that a villa and its occupants have been found in the same location in Britain, and could offer valuable new insights into the state of health of the Romans who lived here, their daily lives, their ancestry and where they came from.

Landmark discovery

So far, the skeletons of two adult males, two adult females and one elderly female have been uncovered – the remains, archaeologists believe, of three generations of the same family who lived in the villa.

They will now be taken to the university, where they will undergo further analysis.

Meanwhile, work on the site is continuing, with geophysics experts and professional archaeologists working side-by-side with students.

Big Dig Bournemouth
Digging deep: The archaeologists opened up a number of grave pits and discovered five skeletons (Picture: Bournemouth University / Durotriges Big Dig)

‘It’s really interesting working alongside practising archaeologists,’ says Jessica.

‘They can tell you what you’re doing and what’s happening here, but also what kind of experience they’ve had and what other things they’ve found.’

‘A good workout’

Demi Wiskerke is on the same undergraduate course as Jessica.

They both chose to come to the UK because they wanted to study a combination degree in archaeology and forensics.

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Plus, Demi explains, the fieldwork is invaluable. ‘To become an archaeologist, you need at least six months’ experience – this excavation lasts five weeks, which is great, and I think it’ll look quite impressive too.

‘It’s really practical experience – we do everything from making maps to trowelling to using mattocks and shovels. It can be quite physically demanding and actually loads of people have lost weight – it’s quite a good workout!’

‘The Golden Age’

Paul Cheetham, senior lecturer in Archaeological Sciences at Bournemouth and co-director of the Durotriges Big Dig project, said: ‘We are looking at the rural elite of late-Roman Britain, living through the economic collapse that took place during this period.

‘These remains will shed light on the final stages of the golden age of Roman Britain.’

Bournemouth big dig
Practical course: Students spend five weeks on the site as part of their undergraduate degrees (Picture: Bournemouth University / Durotriges Big Dig)

And Jessica and Demi are thrilled to be part of that process.

‘On other digs you might just be able to find pottery or snail shells or something like that, which is quite exciting when you’re doing it yourself, but to find actual important finds like these graves is incredible,’ Demi says.

‘It’s amazing that we can set out from the university in the morning, drive in a coach for about 40 minutes, and then be out there digging these things up.’

Celebrity students

‘We knew that we were going to be doing this dig but we didn’t know it was going to be in the media this much!’ Jessica adds.

‘This was the first time I’d lived away from home, and sometimes it really is hard – especially when you’re exhausted from digging for a whole day!

‘But everyone’s good friends on the dig and I feel like I’m learning the things I’m interested in. I’m so glad I came to the UK and I think this is a really good experience.’

Big dig bournemouth
On site: The dig is less than an hour away from the university (Picture: Bournemouth University / Durotriges Big Dig)

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