Elite Roman man buried with sword may have been ‘restrained’ in death

In an isolated field near a Roman villa in Wales, archaeologists have discovered the skeleton of a man buried facedown. Adorned with a silver pin and a sword, he may have been a Roman soldier — but large nails near his neck, back and feet offer tantalizing evidence that he was restrained at death.

This burial and four others, which date to the mid-third to the late-fourth centuries, were discovered by Red River Archaeology, a U.K.-based archaeological firm, during a road improvement project near the town of Barry in south Wales. Archaeologists think the burials may be associated with the Whitton Lodge Roman villa, which was originally excavated half a century ago.

The man, estimated to be between 21 and 25 years old at death, was placed in a rock-cut grave that may have been edged with wooden planks, based on the discovery of nails at the top and bottom of the pit, according to Mark Collard, managing director of Red River Archaeology. In an email to Live Science, Collard noted that “the prone [facedown] position and very large nails at the back of the neck, shoulder and between the feet may indicate restraints.”

Archaeologists found a silver crossbow-style brooch in the man’s burial. It was likely used to fasten a cloak. (Image credit: © Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales)

Contrary to an interpretation of a non-elite or enslaved individual, though, the man’s personal ornaments — an iron sword, hobnailed boots and a silver crossbow-style brooch — suggest he may have been an elite member of the Roman military. 

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