The Romans might be better known for bringing baths and sewers to Britain, but new discoveries show their contributions weren’t all so hygienic.
Archaeologists excavating the remains of Vindolanda, a Roman garrison site just south of Hadrian’s Wall, found that the Romans brought bed bugs with them to Britain.
Katie Wyse Jackson, a University College Dublin student, discovered the remains of the blood-sucking pests while sifting through 2,000-year-old soil samples.
The researchers believe that Roman soldiers might have brought the bugs with them to Britain in their straw sleeping mats.
Ms Wyse Jackson says: ‘The Romans were bringing over clothes, straw, grain in great quantities as they were setting up their camps. So it’s the perfect opportunity for one or two bedbugs to hitchhike over.’
Archaeologists have discovered the oldest bed bug remain ever found in Britain at a Roman Garrison called Vindolanda in Northumberland (stock image)
Vindolanda was a Roman Fort built just south of Hadrian’s Wall at the very edge of the Roman Empire. The archaeologists found the bed bug remains in soil samples dating back to 100 AD
While it might have felt like bedbugs are everywhere after last year’s panic, these bugs were much less common in the Roman world.
Dr Andrew Birley, who heads the Vindolanda archaeological team, told MailOnline: ‘The Vindolanda bed bugs are the earliest discovery from Roman Britain.’
Roman bed bugs have been found once before in the UK, at Alcester in Warwickshire, but these are from an even earlier date.
The soil samples in which Ms Wyse Jackson discovered the insect remains were from one of the deepest layers of the fort which dates back to 100AD.
In the damp soils near Hadrian’s Wall, organic matter is well preserved for an extremely long time.
Using a method called paraffin floatation she was able to collect two preserved thoraxes believed to come from the common bed bug or, in their Latin name, Cimex lectularius.
The 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 at Vindolanda (pictured) tells us a lot about how the people there lived
Dr Birley says that this discovery highlights the challenges of the lives lived by the soldiers here.
He said: ‘They had to put up with an awful lot which we may be much quicker to complain about today.’
The study of ancient insects, or archaeoentomology, can provide a valuable window into the lives and conditions of the past.
‘Finding this kind of thing helps humanise the people of the past,’ Ms Wyse Jackson told The Guardian.
The researchers also uncovered the remains of the Grain Weevil, which can be found in modern kitchen staples such as flour, and the Saw-Toothed 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 living there.
Many of the insect remains found at the site (pictured) lived in close proximity to humans and fed on waste food and dung. This suggests the Roman camp might not have been as clean as was previously believed
Ms Wyse Jackson said: ‘I can learn about trade, food storage, hygiene, waste disposal from what species are present and in what numbers.
‘At the moment, I’m finding a large amount of grain and dung beetles.’
She also notes that a large number of the beetles found are ‘synanthropic’, meaning they live in close proximity to humans.
She adds: ‘So we’re really not looking at a clean space here.
‘The Romans do have that reputation as being extremely clean and so it’s interesting to find all of these insects that are contrary to that.’
Like today, however, bed bugs cannot travel long distances by themselves.
At most bed bugs can travel about 100ft in a night which might be enough to infest an entire house but not enough to travel across countries.
Dr Birley told MailOnline that the bed bugs were most likely carried to the site as the Roman soldier set up camp.
As an important garrison on the Roman Empire’s Northernmost frontier, the Vindolanda garrison brought gathered troops and equipment from all across the ancient world.
Evidence suggests that the fort imported supplies like wine, fish sauce, olive oil, and even pepper.
Just as a bed bug might be carried on an aircraft today, it is likely that these ancient insects hitched a ride in the luggage imported by Roman legionaries.
He says: ‘Current theory is that the bed bugs would have been transported on the packed clothes and bedding/supplies.
‘They [the Romans] import carpets and wall coverings too, and they can catch a lift on those items.’