Alas Poor Yorick: Headless Romano-British Burials

Headless York Roman, via York Archaeology

A large Roman cemetery was uncovered in February, revealing 85 burials dating to the 3rd and 4th centuries. After four months of excavation, the results have finally been released. The cemetery is hailed as being one of the most well preserved of this era and also one of the largest for this region. Archaeologists found a number of flints and an iron ring. This leads them to the conclusion that this was the burial location for a rural settlement reliant on farming practices. However, the actual settlement and domestic site has not yet been discovered. Analysis of the skeletal remains has not yet been conducted, but will add invaluable information once it takes place.

A number of the burials found at the Norfolk site were decapitated, with the heads being placed at the feet of the individual. However, this isn’t a rare occurrence for sites of this era. For a number of these individuals, the flint artifacts were found where the head of the person should have been located, their head found at the feet. As noted by Watts (1998), decapitation was fairly common for the Roman period with approximately 2.5% of all burials containing decapitated remains. Philpott (1991) noted an increase in this practice in rural communities during the 4th century, associated primarily with sites that are highly romanized but lack evidence of Christianity. His survey of 70 Roman era sites revealed that as of 1991 there were 162 examples of decapitation with the practice found slightly more in adult females than adult males. The burial method and associated grave goods are similar to non-decapitated burials, with the exception that most of the skulls are found between the legs and not in anatomical position. There are no clear associations with age or sex, which leads Simmonds et al. (2008) to argue it is an attempt to placate the deceased individual rather than a punishment. In order to determine what this practice means it is important to look at the regional and individual variation. Other sites that have decapitated Romans includes York, Swanpool Walk St. John’s, Towcester, and Musselburgh.

York Headless Romans, via Cemetery of Secrets

At York there were 45 individuals found, all of which were male and had a high amount of pre-mortem and post-mortem trauma. Long deliberation over these remains have determined that they were gladiators from the 3rd century based on the patterns of trauma, exotic locales from which they came from, and the incongruous careful burials. Decapitation likely was part of the process of gladiatorial death, and skulls were found with the individuals.

From Swanpool Walk St. John’s there was one individual found decapitated. Skeleton 1447, a young adult female, was found with the head placed at her feet. Given the burial within the community cemetery and lack of trauma they argue that the decapitation was part of a ritual around an untimely death rather than some type of defeat or denigration, however there is little contextual evidence and only a single burial from which to base conclusions on.

Towcester excavations revealed the remains of two decapitated young adult males dating from the 2nd to 4th centuries. Both have evidence of peri-mortem trauma to the bones. The bodies were found in an urban Roman cemetery among the other burials, and the decapitation was not the cause of death. The cutmarks show that the decapitation took place around the time of the death, but the clumsy manner of cutting and burial within the community cemetery suggest this was ritual rather than punishment (Anderson 2001).

At Musselburgh, remains of 10 decapitated Romans were found in the ramparts of a 2nd century Roman fortlet. The cutmarks indicate that the decapitation occurred after death, and is therefore interpreted as a ritual. The only artifacts recovered were Iron Age flints, although the location and placement is not mentioned in the article. This find is particularly unique, not because of the decapitations, but because they are the first and only ones found in Scotland.

It is interesting that none of these articles or site reports discuss decapitation as a way of denigrating or punishing the individual. Rather, it seems to be part of ritual and takes place after death. Given the lack of contextual information though it is difficult to determine the manner of the ritual or purpose of the act. Philpott (1991:87) argued that decapitation could have been  carried out on individuals that would have difficulty in safely reaching the underworld due to unnatural or untimely death, delayed burial, or other physical handicaps. At this point what is needed is a contextual and regional study of this type of burial, primarily an update on the work done by Philpott. It appears that the more recent finds are primarily male, and that they have more signs of trauma. In addition to this, both the Norfolk and Musselburgh sites have Iron Age artifacts with the Roman burials which could be potentially revealing.

Works Cited

BBC News 2012. Large Roman cemetery discovered in Norfolk BBC News.

Ossafreelance 2009. Osteological Analysis of Human Remains from Sainsbury’s Site, St. Johns, Worcester.

Philpott, R. 1991 Burial Practices In Roman Britain. BAR Brit Ser 219, Oxford.

Anderson, T (2001). Two Decapitations from Roman Towcester Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 11 (6) DOI: 10.1002/oa.581

Simmonds, A. et al. 2008 Life and Death in a Roman City: Excavation of a Roman Cemetery with a Mass Grave at 120-122 London Road, Gloucester. Oxford Archaeology Monograph No. 6. Oxford Archaeology Unit

Watts, D. 1998 Religion in Late Roman Britain. Routledge.

Tann 2010. Decapitated Roman skeletons find is a first for Scotland. Archaeology News Network.

York Archaeology 2011. Could York Headless Romans be Gladiators?

13 responses to “Alas Poor Yorick: Headless Romano-British Burials

  1. Pingback: Male practice | Lentablog·

  2. Two questions…

    You mentioned the discovery of 45 decapitated skeletons in York — this sounds like the case that was the subject of a “Secrets of the Dead” TV show on American public television a few months ago. As I recall, the consensus of the experts on that program was that the burials represented a political purge (not the normal consequence of the gladiatorial lifestyle). This theory isn’t mentioned at all in the article you linked — are you aware whether it has been debunked?york

    Also, several times you said that evidence indicated that decapitation was post-mortem, not the cause of death. Can you elaborate on how that can be determined?

  3. Hi. You were saying that a new study of decapitation burials was due….I have recently been awarded my doctorate doing just that! I was originally involved with the analysis of the decapitated burials from York and appeared in the Secrets of the Dead program. It was originally broadcast some years ago and the theories in it have actually been superseded by the gladiator theory…although in my opinion, this theory is not supported by the evidence. I also have to point out that the Viking mass grave is in Dorset, the completely opposite end of the country to York, and seems to be related to a single event mass-killing, possibly of a captured raiding party.

    My research involved the osteological examination of a large number of decapitated individuals, with a particular focus on the evidence for peri-mortem trauma…and my conclusions were that there are a number of different types of decapitation, rather than a single method that can be defined as a post-mortem ritual process…which has often been the theory posited by previous commentators on the practice. Some decapitations (a very small number) do seem to have careful, precise, incised cuts to the neck, suggesting that they were performed post-mortem…although the ethnographic parallels for this suggest it was only ever performed in order to prevent the dead from returning to haunt the living, with no supporting evidence for any other ritual explanation.

    Other individuals had evidence for single posteriorly directed chopping blows (very similar to those recorded in Anglo-Saxon execution burials), which are just as likely to have resulted from execution in the Romano-British period. The most convincing examples of decapitation as a mechanism of death are in those individuals where there is evidence for slitting of the throat in association with decapitation (presumably to release the blood, and why carry this out on a corpse, where the blood would not be released by such an action?); and individuals with evidence for other peri-mortem trauma such as stabs to the lower abdomen or lower back, chopping blows to the knee, fractures of the distal upper limb, or blunt-force trauma to the cranial vault. These all seem to be related to attempts to incapacitate or immobilise the individual prior to decapitation, and again, this is not something that is likely to have taken place on an individual who was already dead.

    If you are interested, my thesis is available from the University of Winchester, and I have some book chapters in the process of publication which give examples of the different types of decapitation.

    • Thanks for all the info! Thanks for clearing up the Viking/Gladiator thing… I had the worst time figuring it all out but that makes sense now. I’ll definitely check out your thesis.

      Keep me posted on your publications- I’d love to writeup another post about this type of work and having an expert on the subject would be very helpful! Best of luck with all your work.

    • Katie, I must say you are involved in some very cool work!

      It seems to me that the osteological evidence to distinguish between death on the battlefield or in gladiatorial combat vs. judicial execution by decapitation (possibly after incapacitating the victim first, with blows to the head and/or legs) would be the presence of defensive-type injuries — cut marks on the upper extremities. If a soldier or gladiator had “gone down fighting”, there might be some indication of that, whereas if a prisoner had been bound, or who knows, voluntarily surrendered his life, these injuries would not be present. You mentioned some cases of injuries to the upper extremities. I wonder if any patterns emerged, such as “none of the skeletons buried in a given area display defensive injuries” (which might imply that a given group of individuals did ~not~ die in combat).

      For those reading this who have not seen the Secrets of the Dead program, the conclusion that was presented there was that these decapitated skeletons represented a purge of the allies of co-Emperor Geta after his assassination by his brother Caracalla in 211. I think I recall that some documentary evidence supported exactly such a mass execution.

      • Thanks for the great comment! Yes, I would expect that a larger full body analysis might be revealing about the nature of the decapitation. Hopefully I’ll be posting more on the topic soon!

  4. As part of my research I also analysed remains from medieval individuals who were battle victims, in order to compare the patterning of injuries and see whether death on the battlefield could be a valid explanation for any of the decapitated individuals. The pattern was completely different, with battle victims displaying a large number of separate sharp-force traumata, whereas in the decapitations, there were only ever one or two non-decapitation related injuries, if any at all. It is the same for gladiator burials, as the skeletal remains of known gladiators from Ephesus (examined by Grossschmidt and Kanz) displayed a much greater number of separate peri-mortem injuries, but, interestingly, were never decapitated, suggesting this was not part of the method of dispatching injured or defeated fighters.

    The conclusions reached in the Secrets of the Dead programme can be refuted purely on the basis of archaeological stratigraphy. The burials took place over an extended period of time, with intercutting of graves (something that was explained to the programme makers, who chose to ignore it), and the decapitations from York can therefore not result from a single event.

    • Its interesting that simple facts like stratigraphy are often overlooked when bones are involved! Bones are the ‘shiny’ part of the excavation, so I think people tend to forget about the graves and broader site (one of my biggest pet peeves).

  5. Hi Katy,I helped excavate a late Romano British cemetery in Dunstable far as I can remember approx 5% of the bodies were decapitated,one I excavated was in a normal sized grave,but the head was placed between the knees and the legs cut off at the knee and placed feet at the shoulders .the report is Bedfordshire archaeological journal 15 published 1981.good luck glyn James

  6. Pingback: Archaeology of Vampires, part II | Bones Don't Lie·

  7. Hi! I’ve found very interesting your article: indirectly, it’s connected with my passion for the Roman History, though I’m only a simple autodidact.
    Sorry for my awful english…
    Therefore, if I’ve understood your article correctly, allow me to point out that maybe it would be exclude burials of gladiators.
    The gladiators lived in the so-called “familia gladiatoria” and usually they met in particular association known as “sodalicia”: a typical organization of roman society. The “sodalicium” saw to payment of the funerals. Also, the gladiators had their own cemeteries ad they burials often had tombstones with dedication too.
    Not less important, gladiators wasn’t killed with decapitation: the dying men in arena was cut the throat or sank the sword between neck and clavicle. Then, an attendant masked by Charon hit with a mallet the head of the looser to be sure of his death.
    And the evidences not seem to reflect that.
    Moreover, a head thrown between the legs or the feets isn’t an act of respect for the deceased.
    Perhaps if it is confirmed the burials are dated in IV siecle, I think could be maybe some others possible ipotheses:
    a) Supporters of Carausius and Allectus, during the secession in 305-306 AD.
    b) They could be the victims of a cruel repression of the partisans of Magnentius. After the death of the usurper, the emperor Costant II missed in Britannia (and York/Eburacum was the most remarkable site of the north of island) a certain Paulus nicknamed “Catena” (chain) for his cruelty.
    c) They could be the remains of peasents killed during the Picts and Caledonian invasion of 367 (the “Great Cospiracy”)

    Personally, I am inclined ti believe they’ve been excuted after some rebellion… I don’t think a barbarian invader spends is time to hollow singular pits for his enemies (a mass grave is more practical). Usually, he prefers ravage and move himself fastly.
    However, the absence of tombstones is really significative…

    I send you my best regards and I apologize with you for my useless dissertation.

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