British archaeologists have unearthed more than a dozen headless skeletons in a discovery they say in a new paper sheds light on how the ancient Romans used the death penalty as their grip on Britain slipped in the late 3rd century.
Archaeologists at Cambridge Archaeological Unit, a company that provides archaeological services, discovered three small Roman tombs on the edge of a farm in Cambridgeshire, about 70 miles north of London, in excavations between 2001 and 2010. After studying the remains, they found that 17 had been beheaded. skeleton out of 52, a much higher rate than in other Roman tombs, According to a research paper published last month In Britannia Journal of Cambridge University Press.
Archaeologist Isabel Lisboa, who led the excavations, said that the people buried in these tombs were most likely beheaded as punishment for the crimes. Scholars have also explained Roman beheading practices with other theories including executions of slaves, human sacrifices, fertility rites, the taking of the military chalice, and postmortem punishment.
Chris Gosden, professor of European archeology at Oxford University, said the late Roman period saw an increase in death-deserving crimes. He said some of the causes of execution could include violence within and between communities, murder, theft and religious crimes, such as desecration of shrines.
“Any hint of a rebellion against the Roman state would have been dealt with very violently,” he said.
Although an emperor campaigned in Britain in the early third century to strengthen the occupation, Roman control collapsed in the decades that followed. On the Continent, leaders competed against each other – 238 was the so-called Year of the Six Emperors – and in Britain they faced usurpers and revolts.
Dr Lisbon said the placement of skeletons in Cambridgeshire cemeteries indicated that people were alive when they were beheaded and that they were beheaded with one blow from behind by a heavy blade. The wounds on two bodies showed extreme violence, with a skeleton’s body showing cut marks on its jaw and an ear removed.
Some of the skeletons deteriorated to the point that they looked like dust. But technological advances over the past decade, including types of DNA and tooth enamel analysis, have led researchers to conclude that the Romans may have recruited people from different regions, including Scotland and the Alps, to work on the farm in what is now Cambridgeshire. Dr. Lisbon said.
She said researchers believe that the farm was a specialized outpost that provided grain to the Imperial Roman Army because of the presence of a large granary.
Many of the skeletons’ heads were placed from the feet, which may have been done to prevent the spirits of corpses from rising, according to the research paper.
The location of the bodies within the tombs, along with the people who were not beheaded, can be explained by Roman law which stated that the families and friends of executed criminals could request that the bodies be returned for burial. The decapitated bodies were also buried with miniature, colorful earthenware around their heads, including bowls, pots, and flasks, in keeping with local traditions at the time.
“They were not buried as untouchables – they were buried in ordinary rituals with miniature pots around their heads,” said Dr. Lisbon.