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Durham University

Department of Archaeology


Publication details for Professor Charlotte Roberts

Roberts, C.A. & Cox, M. (2006). The Human Population: Health and Disease. In A companion to Roman Britain. Todd, M. Oxford: Blackwell. 242-272.

Author(s) from Durham


Today, as always, our physical and mental health is probably the factor that concerns us most and affects how we conduct our lives. Even when we are well, we can never anticipate illness and know that our illness can be treated quickly and effectively. It is
thus a truism that health is a prerequisite for the success of any society. One only has to look to modern developing societies to appreciate the problems they face (McElroy and Townsend 1996) in acquiring the basic necessities of life such as a clean water supply; without this, health suffers and early mortality may ensue. We do not have to go far back in time to realize that it is only during the past century or so that we in Britain have seen the improvements in living conditions, diet, access to health care
and the development of medical applications such as antibiotics that we take for granted today. If we consider our ancestors further back in time, we must question how much ill-health they encountered, their attempts to introduce measures to prevent disease and to treat it, and comparisons with today. If encounters with illhealth were influential in determining the success or otherwise of past societies, then we should be considering the people who shaped those societies and their health. In pursuing this line of thinking, we must inevitably turn to the archaeological evidence for people, as the primary evidence for the health of human beings comes from the remains of the people themselves. This chapter considers the nature of this evidence, the associated problems of analysis and interpretation, the evidence for health and disease in Roman Britain, and offers some thoughts on how healthy the Romano-Britons were, and the impact of their health on the functioning of their society.