The Headless Romans: Headhunting, Defeated Gladiators or Natural River Movement?

In the Walbrook Valley near the city of London, large numbers of human remains, dating to the Roman occupation of England, have been recovered over the past 175 years- and all that is usually found is the skull. When archaeologists recover large amounts of detached skulls from a specific context, it is often assumed that something grisly happened there. If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know I’m not a fan of jumping to conclusions of ritualistic behavior and much prefer if we stick to the facts. In fact, some investigation of assumed ritualistic skull removal has proven to be merely taphonomic and not ritualistic at all (see my post on Neolithic seated burials for a good example of this). However, the past was quite grisly, horrible things like massacres, witch hunting and beheadings did occur, and there is archaeological evidence of this behavior. What happened in the Walbrook Valley that lead to dozens of detached skulls behind found?

Some of the Roman skulls found while excavating the Walbrook area, not those underinvestigation, via BBC

Some of the Roman skulls found while excavating the Walbrook area, not those underinvestigation, via BBC

A new study by Redfern and Bonney (2014) examines the remains of individuals found buried in the Walbrook Valley during the Romano-British period in order to better understand the archaeological evidence being found in this area, and more importantly to answer the question of why we keep finding skulls without the bodies here? Previous hypotheses for the discovery of the lone crania have used the textual history, arguing perhaps that this is evidence of the Boudican rebellion where hundreds of Roman Londoners were massacred by the native Britons in 60 CE. Another hypothesis is that this represents the individuals who were opposed to the rule of Julius Asclepiodotus in A.D. 296, who was responsible for restoring Roman rule in England. Radiocarbon dating has shown that not all the skulls date to the Roman period, and this may represent an area where many skulls come to rest after being moved by the stream, and their collection in the valley may just represent erosion of cemeteries and a variety of burial sites.

Roman London Map, Walbrook River running through the middle and connecting with the Thames, via In London Guide

Roman London Map, Walbrook River running through the middle and connecting with the Thames, via In London Guide

The site that Redfern and Bonney (2014) investigate was first excavated in 1989, and would have been located within the city walls of Roman London in the Walbrook Valley. The human remains found there were deposited between 120 – 160 CE, though it may be as early as 40 CE and as late as 200 CE, and were found buried in pits rather than formal individual graves. The pits had various industrial functions, and likely were not originally designed for burial. Sadly due to the incomplete excavation of the site and lack of archival material- we do not know the full details about what types of burials, or lack of burial, these individuals were afforded. The sample of individuals includes: the shaft of one adult right femur and a total of 39 partial or complete human skulls. The minimum number of individuals found at the site is 30, and this was determined by the presence of left parietal bones. Of the sample, 90% of the individuals were determined to be male, and the rest were indeterminate. Due to preservation and lack of full remains, specific age groups could not be determined, although size and fusion suggests that most were adults.

In order to determine whether skulls collected in the pit due to the movement of river water from various burial sites or were specifically deposited here as skulls, was based on the analysis of taphonomic damage to the remains. Taphonomy is the study of what happens to remains after the death of the living creature (Learn more about that here), and can be used to determine whether they were altered by humans or by the natural environment. To determine if the skulls were moved by water, they assessed whether the skulls showed specific traits found in water transported remains, including: destruction or perforation of the thin bones of the face and skull from hitting rocks and moving along the river bed, abrasion, pitting or scratching by rocks, loss of single teeth or articulated bones, staining from algae, and presence of aquatic insect casings. While some of these indicators were present, there were not sufficient number of indicators to show that all skulls were naturally moved to this location by water.

Lack of abrasion, presence of canine teeth marks, and articulation of the skull bones in most of the crania suggest instead that the heads were removed while the individuals still had flesh on their bodies, and were specifically placed in these pits. Further, the majority of the skulls show some type of trauma that had occurred during the life of the individual and had healed to some extent. The sample included multiple cases of sharp force trauma, ante-mortem and peri-mortem fractures, dental injuries, blunt force trauma, and many individuals had more than one of these indicators of violence. The majority of the trauma consisted of direct blunt force blows to the face, mouth and sides of the head. Sharp force trauma was consistent with decapitation, being found near the base of the skull towards the neck.

When compared against the historic record, this violence doesn’t correspond with the Boudican rebellion or any other social unrest, warfare or acts of organized violence. Instead, Redfern and Bonney (2014) proposes three hypotheses: 1) these represent criminals who were publicly executed, 2) are gladiators who died in the amphitheatre games, or 3) headhunting as a display of military prowess. Any of these could have lead to violence, trauma, decapitation, and an unceremonious burial in an unknown pit. While there is no final conclusion as to which hypothesis is the correct one, all are evidence of an era of history that was brutal and violent. The deposition of these skulls here does have some type of ritualistic and violent meaning, and while we may never know the exact circumstances, it does tell us more about what it meant to live in this period.

If you’re having trouble locating the Walbrook river, see this post by the Museum of London Archaeology team on its location and where it is now:

Works Cited

ResearchBlogging.orgRedfern, R., & Bonney, H. (2014). Headhunting and amphitheatre combat in Roman London, England: new evidence from the Walbrook Valley Journal of Archaeological Science, 43, 214-226 DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2013.12.013

9 responses to “The Headless Romans: Headhunting, Defeated Gladiators or Natural River Movement?

  1. Oddly enough, I’m doing my dissertation (3rd year) on unusual Roman ‘burials’. Decapitations are much more common than you’d think, and very very rarely are they connected to a definitively negative action, such as the results of war, or the burial of a criminal. By and large, prone burials (inhumed facing downwards) have a much more negative context in that they are seldom buried with any grave goods.

    • I would love to hear more about your research. It does seem like there may be a non-negative reason for decapitation, but for being fairly common there isn’t much contemporary discussion of this. If you have any insight I would love to share it on the blog!

      • It’s pretty interesting stuff! Only issue is that there’s several bazillion different interpretations of what a decapitation actually meant. Really interesting links have been made to the head-cults of Pre-Roman Britain, which seems a bit unlikely, but you’ll struggle to find a roman era temple in England which doesn’t have a decapitation under its foundations! So, you never know! I’d be happy to send you some of the stuff I’ve been looking at if you’d like! Very interesting deposit at Driffield Terrace, in York, which seems to be a high status cemetery with a ridiculous amount of decapitations within it. Clarke blames it on foreigners, a lot of the media thinks they were gladiators, noone actually knows a bloody thing!

  2. I wonder if it could be related to a “Decimation”. Are there any evidence that the skulls comes from soldiers? “Decimatio” was used to punish one soldier on ten for defection. This could explain why they are all almost men. Really interesting!!! Thanks

  3. I guess if the victims were slaves or just lower class members of the Roman state they would be more likely to be exposed to blunt force injuries. These people would also be more likely to be caught absconding or rebelling or stealing cheese or whatever before being tried and beheaded. But I don’t think that you should rule out a ritualistic element to these decapitations either (assuming that is what they are). I think that a number of British cultural formations have historically shown themselves to be quite capable of barbaric head-hunting behaviour. There is quite a lot written about this too. You know, talking heads and things like that. Here in Australia there is a lot of evidence that early British shepherds and settlers cut off the heads of the local Aboriginal people and kept them as trophies. On one visit to a shepherd’s hut in Victoria, the chief protector of Aborigines, G. Robertson, ordered the convict occupant to pull down the skulls he had nailed over the doorway. The last example of this kind of behaviour that I have personally heard of occurred in the 60’s. And there is plenty of evidence of Aboriginal people being executed so that their skulls could be sold to collectors overseas, and even to institutions such as museums and universities – especially if the person had a particularly unusual shaped head. This went on until after the first world war. So head-hunting and a kind of skull fetish tend to be elements of British, and indeed European culture, right up until the 1920’s. Your site could just be an early representation of this cultural expression? The fact that the heads are deposited in water is also interesting. The Celtic peoples (and I use the term ‘Celtic’ very advisedly) often deposited offerings to ‘gods’ in wells, lakes and rivers. Often these were shields, swords or other tokens. But perhaps sacrificial victims in this part of the world were also given a swim? It would be interesting to find out if any other goods were deposited in the same location.

  4. Pingback: Irish Eyes Aren’t Smiling: Decapitation in Medieval Ireland | Bones Don't Lie·

  5. Pingback: Archaeology: Decapitation in Medieval Ireland | pundit from another planet·

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