The Romans might be best known for bringing baths and sewers to Britain, but new discoveries show their contributions were not all so hygienic.
Archaeologists excavating the remains of Vindolanda, a Roman garrison site just south of Hadrian’s Wall, discovered that the Romans brought bedbugs to Britain.
Katie Wyse Jackson, a student at University College Dublin, discovered the remains of the blood-sucking pests while examining 2,000-year-old soil samples.
Researchers believe Roman soldiers could have brought the insects to Britain on their straw sleeping mats.
Wyse Jackson says: ‘The Romans brought clothing, straw and grain in large quantities as they set up their camps. So it’s the perfect opportunity for a bed bug or two to hitch a ride.’
Archaeologists have discovered the oldest bedbug remains ever found in Britain at a Roman garrison called Vindolanda in Northumberland (file image)
Vindolanda was a Roman fort built just south of Hadrian’s Wall at the very edge of the Roman Empire. Archaeologists found remains of bed bugs in soil samples dating back to 100 AD
While it may have seemed like bed bugs were everywhere after last year’s panic, these bed bugs were much less common in the Roman world.
Dr Andrew Birley, who leads the Vindolanda archaeological team, told MailOnline: “Vindolanda bedbugs are the first discovery from Roman Britain.”
Roman bugs have been found once before in the UK, in Alcester, Warwickshire, but they are from an even earlier date.
The soil samples in which Wyse Jackson discovered the insect remains were from one of the deepest layers of the fort dating back to 100 AD.
In the moist soils near Hadrian’s Wall, organic matter is well preserved for a long time.
Using a method called paraffin flotation, he was able to collect two preserved thoraxes believed to have come from the common bed bug or, in its Latin name, Cimex lectularius.
Vindolanda Fort (pictured) was an important site for the Roman Empire in Britain. South of Hadrian’s Wall it played a vital role in defending the empire and supporting the other forts in the surrounding region.
The discovery of bed bugs in Vindolanda (pictured) tells us a lot about how people lived there.
Dr Birley says this discovery highlights the challenges of life soldiers live here.
He said: “They had to put up with a lot of things that we can complain about much quicker today.”
The study of ancient insects, or archaeoentomology, can provide a valuable window into the lives and conditions of the past.
“Finding these kinds of things helps humanize people from the past,” Wyse Jackson said. The Guardian.
The researchers also discovered the remains of the grain weevil, which can be found in modern kitchen staples such as flour, and the sawtooth grain beetle.
Since beetles have a specific diet and habitat, identifying species that were present in the past can tell us what the conditions were like for the people who lived there.
Many of the insect remains found at the site (pictured) lived in close proximity to humans and fed on food waste and dung. This suggests that the Roman camp may not have been as clean as previously believed.
Ms Wyse Jackson said: “I can learn about trade, food storage, hygiene and waste disposal from what species are present and in what quantities.”
“Right now I’m finding a lot of grain and dung beetles.”
He also notes that a large number of beetles found are “synanthropic,” meaning they live in close proximity to humans.
And he adds: “So here we are not really looking at a clean space.
“The Romans have a reputation for being extremely clean, so it’s interesting to find all these insects that are contrary to that.”
However, just like today, bed bugs cannot travel long distances alone.
In most cases, bed bugs can travel about 100 feet in one night, which might be enough to infest an entire house, but not enough to travel across countries.
Dr Birley told MailOnline that the bedbugs were most likely brought to the site when the Roman soldier set up camp.
As an important garrison on the northernmost frontier of the Roman Empire, the Vindolanda garrison brought together troops and equipment from across the ancient world.
Evidence suggests that the fort imported supplies such as wine, fish sauce, olive oil, and even pepper.
Just as a bedbug can be transported on an airplane today, these ancient insects likely traveled in luggage imported by Roman legionaries.
He says: ‘The current theory is that the bed bugs would have been carried on clothing and packaged bedding/supplies.
“They (the Romans) also import carpets and wall coverings, and can get a ride on those items.”