Variations in the health status of urban populations in Roman Britain: a comparison of skeletal samples from major and minor towns
Romano-British towns are conventionally divided into those that possessed administrative powers (the major or ‘public’ towns) and those that did not (the minor or ‘small towns’). Public towns and small towns differed in terms of size and socioeconomic status, with the latter sometimes characterised as semi-rural rather than truly urban. Hitherto, research into the differing nature of the communities at public and small towns has focused primarily on variations in settlement morphology, architecture and material culture. This study provides a new perspective on the issue by examining osteological indicators of lifestyle and health in skeletal samples from these two categories of site. Roman populations from the small town of Ancaster, Lincs (N=271) and the public town of Winchester, Hants (N=330) dating to c. AD 200-410 were analysed using standard osteological methods. Data on age-at-death, growth and stature, and skeletal and dental pathology were recorded and compared using a range of statistical tests to identify potential differences. Additionally, published data for contemporaneous populations were collated for comparison. A biocultural approach was used to contextualise the data with reference to archaeological and historical evidence. Some differences in demography were observed, but were probably the result of sample biases. No marked differences in growth or stature were observed. Pathology prevalence rates were comparable for many conditions. However, higher rates of joint disease at Ancaster, and differences in the pattern of long bone trauma may point to the Ancaster population having experienced a more agrarian lifestyle, engaging in more frequent and/or extended periods of heavy labour. In contrast, there was more evidence for violent trauma at Winchester, and the frequencies of three non-specific indicators of ill health (cribra orbitalia, porotic hyperostosis and dental enamel hypoplasia) and scurvy were higher. This suggests that people at Winchester experienced greater levels of social, dietary and environmental stress, perhaps reflecting a larger, more heterogeneous population. Dental health status was generally poorer at Ancaster, which may be due to differences in diet, oral hygiene and/or other non-dietary factors. Published data for other populations broadly support the study conclusions, although comparisons were limited by incompatibilities in methodology and data presentation. Overall, the findings corroborate existing perspectives on the socio-economic characters of public and small towns, but differences were not pronounced. The significance of the findings is discussed in relation to the nature of settlement and society in Roman Britain.