Body at Roman site from overseas

A child who was possibly murdered at one of Britain's most important Roman sites 1,800 years ago came from the Mediterranean, an expert has said.

The discovery implies the young victim was either a child slave or the son or daughter of a soldier serving on Hadrian's Wall - giving more weight to the theory that they brought their families with them to the wilds of Northumberland.

The skeleton was found two years ago in a shallow pit in the corner of a barrack room floor at Vindolanda Roman fort.

As human burials in built-up areas were forbidden in Roman times - the dead had to be buried or cremated away from settlements - experts believed the child's body had been concealed. And from the way it was found, the victim could have had his or her hands tied.

The pit at the barracks dated back to the middle of the 3rd century when the Fourth Cohort of Gauls formed the garrison.

It has not been possible to determine whether the body was male or female, but Dr Trudi Buck, a Durham University biological anthropologist, has judged it to be aged about 10. She gave the child the name Georgie so she did not have to refer to the remains as "it".

Dr Buck said: "I think this is definitely a murder or other unnatural death because of the way the body was deposited. This is very circumstantial, but possibly it was hit over the head with something because we have very good preservation of the body down to wrist bones that are 1cm in size, but not very much of the head. Maybe a harsh blow to the head caused a fractured skull."

Tests on the child's tooth enamel, carried out for a National Geographic Channel TV programme, showed he or she grew up in the Mediterranean.

"It turns out the child is not from the local area as I originally assumed, and is not even from Britain," Dr Buck said. "Until the child was at least seven or eight, they have been in southern Europe or even North Africa. This asks lots of questions about who this child was, how did they get from North Africa to northern Britain in the last two years of their life, and then get killed?"

Dr Andrew Birley, director of excavations at the site, said: "This is an exceptional find. Not only it is incredibly rare to get evidence in the form of human remains from within a Roman fort (as it was illegal to bury humans inside the walls of the settlement), but the research on this skeleton highlights the truly multicultural nature of the occupation at Vindolanda and Hadrian's Wall throughout the Roman period."