Thursday, 20 March 2014

Roman infant death in Godmanchester.

Inbetween business meetings on Fridays, I drop by the friendly Norris Museum in St Ives, Cambridgeshire, UK. One Friday...

“Bones of an infant at about nine months, Roman cemetery, Godmanchester 1905”. The words were written in copperplate lettering on the slightly battered cigar box. It lay in an archive box amongst the remains of Roman pottery sherds(1). Norris Museum volunteer Rodney Scarle was meticulously photographing and recording the large collection of Roman artefacts held at the Museum. He pointed out the box to me whilst we were chatting about his work. I asked whether I, as a biologist, could lay them out for photography.

The Reverend Walker’s box containing Roman infant bones, from 1905
I opened the box, and there, protected by cotton wool, were the small bones and fragments. I gently began laying them out on a piece of card. The task was complicated by the fact that the bones of infants and very young children do not look like those of adults(2). Our adult hip joints for example, are made up of several bones that fuse together.

On the one hand, it was obvious that not all the bones were present. On the other, there seemed to be duplication. If you look closely at the picture, you can see that bottom right there are at least three very robust long bones that are most likely to be femurs or thighbones. This suggests that we may actually have the bones of several infants mixed together.

The Roman infant bones laid out on card. Thighbones bottom right.
Even today, thighbones are used for estimating the age of an infant before birth and after. With lengths here of about 7 to 8 cm, these matched those of new-born infants(3).

The infant bones were part of a larger excavation by the amateur archaeologist, Reverend Walker, who lived in the north of Godmanchester. He recorded that in 1904 he was actually digging a hole in his orchard when he came across pots and other artefacts(4). It seemed to be a Roman cemetery, possibly belonging to a villa located in a neighbour’s garden to the north and inaccessible to Walker. Coins found in the cremation urns of adults, perhaps for the ferryman to take them across the river in the underworld after death, suggested a date in the first or early second century A.D..

Rodney and I could not pinpoint the location of Walker’s finds on an online map. So I visited the Huntingdonshire archive to try and find the exact location of this Roman cemetery and Rev Walker’s garden. The extremely helpful staff directed me to the old Ordinance survey maps. 1885 - nothing. 1900 - nothing. 1926 - bingo! The cemetery was marked just to the west of where two important Roman roads came to a junction, namely Ermine Street and Cambridge Street, as also described in Walker’s notes.

Section of 1926 Ordnance Survey Map held in the Huntingdonshire Collection, showing North of Godmanchester. Roman finds in circle.
According to Walker, the infant bones were found scattered near the adult cremation urns. Yet, as far as I could tell, they had not been near fire as you might expect for a cremation. Why were there so many new-borns buried here? Both the dating and in association with the Romans could provide some of the answers.

Today, we live in a very child-centric time. We value the new-born child as it is welcomed into the world. Perceptions in Roman time were very different. Men came first, their wives and children were regarded as their property. And then of course there were the slaves, chattels that had very little say over their own existence. If there truly was a villa north of the cemetery, the number of its slaves may well have outnumbered the owners.

When a child was born in a Roman household, it was presented to the head of the family, the Pater Familias. It was then his decision whether to keep the infant or to let it die by exposure. If he rejected an infant from his wife, then the custom was to place it in a bowl outside the house or more often outside the temple in the town where there was a chance that someone else might take it into care - or into a life of slavery. This did happen. Roman remains show a peak of deaths at birth - a large number of infants were left to die. Infanticide and abandonment was not just a Roman practice. It was practiced in many other cultures at the time. Infant abandonment was not universally accepted even amongst Romans, but it was an open and recognised fact of life at the time. 

The future might have been more brutal for births amongst slaves. They had no say. The head of the household would decide: can we afford to keep the baby as a new slave? Could it be sold on, or was it simply surplus to requirements – to be disposed of(5). 

The situation only changed in the 374 A.D., when infanticide was banned - You were only able to either keep the infant or sell it! Unless, that is, it was seriously ill or disabled, when it could still be killed. The practice of infanticide and abandonment at birth continued and was prevalent in Europe right up to the Middle Ages. It probably led to the creation of the first orphanages(6). 

So, the infant bones found by the Rev Walker in Godmanchester could very well be of those unfortunate new-born children that did not find favour with the head of the family, were abandoned and discarded when they died.

The Romans feared the ghosts of the dead(7). Adult cremation and burials were conducted outside of the town or villa, with enough soil to cover them so that they could not return to haunt the living. The bodies of slaves (and unwanted infants) ended up on the rubbish tips. Whilst there seemed to be less regard for the newly born, we are left with a vision of the Roman underworld, where the dead would go, in Virgil’s Aenid (book VI)(8) :

“Immediately a loud crying of voices was heard, the spirits
of weeping infants, whom a dark day stole at the first
threshold of this sweet life, those chosen to be torn
from the breast, and drowned in bitter death.”

After photography, the bones were carefully collected again and this time placed in a new, separate box, to protect them in storage, following guidelines on the handling and storage of human remains in museums(9).

Exploring the story of a small cigar box with its collection of bones reminded us of the harsher aspects of Roman life in Godmanchester. It also brought home how fortunate we are in the present day: Free and with more control over our own destinies, whatever our age and gender. And, above all, in most cases cherished from birth.

Dr Chris Thomas, Norris Museum volunteer
Rodney Scarle, Norris Museum volunteer
With kind thanks to the Norris Museum, St Ives, Cambridgeshire


(1)  In archaeology sherd referes to pottery fragments and shard to glass fragments.
(2)  Louise Scheuer; Sue Black, 2000. “Developmental Juvenile Osteology”, Academic Press. Image seen in blog Lawn Chair Anthropology; article “Osteology everywhere: A sign I might have a problem”. 
(3) Fetus Growth Charts Graphs and Calculators 
(4)  Reverend F G Walker, 1909. “Greek coins and Syrian arrowhead dug up in a Roman cemetery at Godmanchester”, Cambridge Antiquarian Society, volume XIII, pp280-290.
(6)  Wikipedia “Infanticide”, 2014,
(7)  Burial with the Romans, British Archaeology site, 
(8)  Publius Vergilius Maro (Virgil), 19BC, “The Aenid”. Book VI, 417-439 “Beyond the Acheron”. 

Full article as PDF (8MB) available from

Monday, 10 March 2014

Social media for business, where do I start?

If you’re new to using social media as part of your marketing strategy, the first advice usually given is: Make sure you have a clear social media/marketing strategy for your company before getting started!

“How am I supposed to do that?” You may well ask,”When I don’t know anything about social media!”

My objective is to help you take that very first step.

Let’s take a look at what other social media marketers have done and think are important. The data comes from the Social Media Marketing Industry Report for 2013 and is based on responses from 3025 participants. (I thoroughly recommend getting the full free report from

The benefits of social media marketing

The chart below gives the percentage of positive responses on nine different benefits.

More than three quarters of respondents saw both increased exposure and increased traffic to their sites as the main benefit of social media marketing. Third on the list was the ability to gain marketplace insights. In contrast, only 43% saw an immediate benefit of improved sales. However, this did increase where companies have been marketing by social media for several years or more.

The immediate benefits of social media marketing are high visibility and interaction with your customers and being better informed about your market place.

Which Social media?

This question can be interpreted in two ways:
  1. Which social media do companies use?
  2. Which is the most important social medium for a company?
The answers fall out slightly differently, depending on whether you’re a B2B business or B2C business.

B2B Companies tended to use several social media in their marketing strategies. Facebook, LinkedIn and blogging were the most used social media for B2B. Twitter, YouTube and Google plus followed with Pinterest being a new star on the horizon.

However the two media that had the greatest importance for B2B marketers in 2013 were Facebook and LinkedIn.

For businesses marketing directly to customers, the two main media used were Facebook and Twitter, with LinkedIn, blogging and YouTube roughly equal thirds. Pinterest was also a rising star here. However Facebook was by far the dominant medium of first choice for B2C business marketing at 67%, with blogging and Twitter following with 19 and 16% respectively.

Possible trends for 2014

The next targets for companies using social media marketing in 2014, were greater use of YouTube, Pinterest and Google plus. Another star on the horizon is the use of podcasting, i.e. using downloadable voice and sound.

Taking the first steps towards your own social media marketing strategy

My personal recommendation is to proceed as follows:
  1.  Choose ONE social medium to start with and join.
  2. Set up an interesting personal profile and/or company profile to get started with on your chosen platform.
  3. Invite a close circle of business friends and colleagues to like you or follow you or link with you, depending on which social medium you’ve chosen.
  4. Use your membership of the social medium to mine it for facts, information and contacts in your business area of interest.
  5. Do add your own interesting and relevant contributions to discussions and groups.
  6. Persevere on a regular basis until you have a good feel for the medium you’ve chosen.
  7. With the information and confidence gained, re-assess and refine your company’s social media marketing strategy. Add other social media to your marketing strategy.

How much time should I spend on social media marketing?

Newcomers to social media tend to spend less than five hours a week on their social media marketing. As people become more confident over time, this increases to more than six hours a week. In fact a third of marketing businesses spend more than 11 hours a week on social media marketing. The reality seems to be as with anything, the more effort you put into it, the more you get out of it.

Where can I get more help and information?

I thoroughly recommend getting the full free report from for more statistics and insights on social media marketing in 2013.

Ask friends and business colleagues who are more experienced at social media marketing. See if there is one who is capable and willing to share their experience at a level comfortable to the novice.

The Huntingdonshire Business Network members are helpful and knowledgeable in social media.

Look for free or paid courses in getting started in social media. If the teacher is great, fantastic! You’ll learn directly from them. If they confound you with long words and lose you pretty quickly, turn to your classmates - at least you’ve gained a self-help group!

If you’re based in and around Cambridge, UK, I’m available to help for a small fee :).

Good luck with your social media marketing adventure. Let me know how you get on!

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Have a Punt on Cambridge TV

Spaceman in Ely - An idea for the new Cambridge TV?

I was glad that I’d made the choice to give up an armchair evening watching “Murder in Paradise” to hear about the new local Cambridge TV station, being set up by Peter Dawe, at Sue Keogh’s Creative Ely meeting.

Peter Dawe is a serial entrepreneur who has worked with more than 80 businesses over 30 years, including the founding of Pipex and Internet Watch. Peter had had a brush with setting up a community TV channel in the past. His great achievement at the time, as he wryly remarked, was to lose money more slowly than other equivalent stations. Community TV disappeared when the funding and support was dropped. But now, Offcom is again encouraging local TV.

Seizing the opportunity, Peter gained the licence for Cambridge TV. There would be a free view signal from Madingley and the potential for one from the Sandy Heath transmitter. The anticipated launch will be in summer 2014 at the earliest but must occur no later than September 2015. In a humorous link between the gamble and its location in Cambridge, a possible name is “Punt TV”.

Peter’s Punt TV has an obligation to provide 11 hours of locally produced programmes a week and he hopes to be able to share local news items from the BBC diary.

That just leaves another 157 hours per week to fill! So how does Peter propose to do this?

Whilst there will be a small team of five professionals, the reality is that there is no money in local TV. One route is to give trainees an opportunity to learn about the sector. But most of the entries will be high-quality submissions by contractors who are willing to self-fund their activities. A key factor would be to provide weekly content. And what you get for this? Well initially there is going to be no charge for broadcasting.

There will however be quality control. Good TV broadcasts don’t just require content, they need excellent lighting and sound recording. Peter and his team will be screening incoming material, presumably via a wormhole in space to screen one week’s TV simultaneously in a parallel universe.

Who’s the audience? Well, the people of Cambridge, with above average income and a high proportion of the population with at least one degree. An audience that is willing to watch more challenging and interesting programmes. How about local business news, hot topics from university research and local documentaries, broadcasts of concerts and talks.

“Yes, at last! Snob TV!” was my wicked thought, eliciting a chuckle from the audience and resonating in the discussion afterwards.

But seriously, I can see some great opportunities here. At the meeting itself, we had creative people with considerable media experience, artists, and basically the whole of Creative Ely as a resource. With a lead time of several months at the earliest till the launch of Punt TV, planning, storyboarding and filming technically high-quality programmes is a serious possibility. And this extends to the business community too. Key will be the provision of programs that can be broadcast over several weeks

I personally really enjoy interviewing people and bringing the best out in them.

Before returning home from an exhilarating evening, I still had one last task to do. It was a cold chill night, and the Ely waterfront reflections in the river called out to be photographed. For added interest, I had lured Jon Torrens out with me. Illuminated by the light of mobile phone, he provided a fantastic eerie counterpoint to the night-time river reflections. Thanks Jon!

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