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UCD student reveals bedbugs “most likely” came to Britain with the Romans

Posted 8 February, 2024

A 2,000-year-old infestation unearthed near Hadrian's Wall reveals the Romans did not just bring their legions to Britain, they also brought bedbugs.

While excavating at Vindolanda, a fort which once marked the farthest northern fringes of the Roman empire, archaeologists have found what is most likely to be the earliest evidence of bedbugs in Britain.

The discovery was made by Katie Wyse Jackson, a University College Dublin student working at the site since August 2023 as part of her research masters in archaeoentomology with the UCD School of Archaeology.

The study of insects and other arthropods recovered at archaeological sites, the discipline is a branch of environmental archaeology and offers unique perspectives on ancient human and how they related to the environment and changes over time.

“Detailed insect analysis has never been conducted at Vindolanda,” said Katie. “The project is considering this well-known archaeological site from a new angle, uncovering crucial information about people of the past that may have otherwise gone unnoticed.”

“Archaeoentomology is almost unique in that we study organisms that would have been living with, and in some cases on, people in the past,” added (opens in a new window)Dr Stephen Davis, an expert in environmental archaeology and one of the UCD specialists working at Vindolanda.

“This means it can give us a real insight into the lived experience of people in the past that other methods might miss."

Examining soil excavated from Vindolanda from between AD 100 to 105, Katie used a process (opens in a new window)called paraffin flotation to separate insects from the waterlogged material.

Within the damp earth near Hadrian's Wall, organic matter is well preserved. Among the insects preserved in the soil, she was able to collect thoraxes believed to come from the common bed bug.  

The discovery is the earliest known evidence of bedbugs in Britain, and supports the idea that the Romans brought bedbugs with them when their legions invaded the isle in AD 43. 

“It’s very likely they came with whatever the Romans were bringing over. Today, we see bedbugs travelling on aeroplanes in luggage, in clothes,” Katie told (opens in a new window)the Guardian.

“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.”

Also uncovered at Vindolanda were the remains of Grain or Wheat Weevils, found today in modern kitchen staples such as flour and rice, and the Saw-Toothed Grain Beetle. 

These tiny creatures offer crucial insights into living conditions in Roman Britain in ways that cannot be otherwise found, Katie told the Guardian.

“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.

“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.”

Dr Davis told the Guardian that evidence of bedbugs has been found at other Roman sites in England and elsewhere throughout Europe, but that those at Vindolanda would be “the earliest found in Britain so far”.

“UCD is a leading centre for environmental archaeology in Ireland and Katie's research continues a longstanding School connection to research at Vindolanda,” he added.

“This is the first time in over 60 years of modern excavation that insect analysis has been incorporated into research at Vindolanda, uncovering crucial information about people of the past that may have otherwise gone unnoticed.”

Katie will be presenting some preliminary results of her research master’s at the forthcoming European Archaeological Association conference in August in Rome.

By:David Kearns, Digital Journalist / Media Officer, UCD University Relations

To contact the UCD News & Content Team, email: newsdesk@ucd.ie