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.
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.
BBC News 2012. Large Roman cemetery discovered in Norfolk BBC News. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-norfolk-18693970
Ossafreelance 2009. Osteological Analysis of Human Remains from Sainsbury’s Site, St. Johns, Worcester. http://www.ossafreelance.co.uk/PastProjects/WCM101591Sainsburysstjohns.pdf
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. http://archaeologynewsnetwork.blogspot.com/2010/11/decapitated-roman-skeletons-find-is.html
York Archaeology 2011. Could York Headless Romans be Gladiators? http://www.yorkarchaeology.co.uk/about/news.htm