Beheading was a popular mode of execution throughout human history- it is dramatic, final and is often part of a public display of power by the victors over the soon to be deceased. Whenever I think about this type of execution, I think back to the famous paintings of Judith slaying Holofernes. When I was a high school student, I took a summer art course where we had to do a large oil painting as our final project. I did a version of Judith slaying Holofernes, complete with a triumphant female in purple robes holding a bloodied sword and a decapitated head. Perhaps it isn’t surprising then that I’m a mortuary archaeologist… Moving on, decapitation and beheading actually have quite a long history, although it can be difficult to interpret this from the archaeological record. In addition to the execution style of head removal, we’ve seen certain cases where heads were removed after death as a form of ancestor veneration (see this article on Neolithic burials from the Near East and this one on gladiators), so the removal of the head cannot be assumed to mean something negative or violent- we need to look closely at the context and bioarchaeology.
First, let’s quickly review some terms. Decapitation comes from the Latin capitis- meaning head, and is the separation of the head from the body which results in death. Severing the head causes all other organs within the body to fail and deprives the brain of oxygen. Beheading in particular refers to an intentional decapitation- including murder or execution. These terms don’t refer to the method of decapitation, so it can be done with axe, sword, knife, wire, or guillotine. In beheadings, the act is carried out by a professional executioner known as a ‘headsman’.
A new article by Carty (2015) examines osteological evidence for decapitation from different skeletal assemblages from the Irish medieval period (6th to 16th century). Text from this period argues that decapitation was used primarily in warfare and as a form of punishment. Execution by beheading was performed with the individual either kneeling or standing in this period. Carty’s (2015) goal is to used the skeletal material to examine whether decapitation was occurring in this fashion, execution style, or if the finding of displaced skulls in the archaeological record might have another interpretation such as trophy display or ancestor veneration.
The sample includes 30 different skeletal assemblages from Ireland dating from the 6th to 16th century, with each assemblage having between 13 and 1 individuals showing signs of decapitation. A total of 68 individuals had evidence for decapitation, including 55 males and 7 females. For each individual, Carty (2015) described the trauma in detail noting which bones were affected, direction of the blow, what weapon may have been employed, and general description of the cut marks. Individuals were also categorized by the location of their burial, age, sex, and time period.
Results from the study show that the majority of individuals are young to middle aged adult males, which corresponds with interpretations of warfare leading to decapitation. These individuals were likely poorer and marginalized, leading them to be used on the battlefields. Of the females who were decapitated, three of them showed signs of facial mutilation as well. In this instance, beheading was likely a punishment for a crime rather than an act of war.
In the earlier medieval period, decapitated skulls were more likely to end up in the grave with the individual, whereas in the later medieval period, the skulls are more likely absent- probably relating to a trend in the later period to display the skulls as trophies or warnings. Despite their punishment, most of these individuals were buried in community cemeteries, and were rarely segregated, although they may be placed in less favored spots within the cemetery. The analysis of the cut marks shows that most of the individuals would have been decapitated on their knees or standing, since the blows are to the back of the head. Only one individual showed cut marks to the mandible suggesting a blow to the side of the neck rather than back.
This study is really quite interesting, and it will be fascinating to see the complete study on violence in this period. Carty (2015) concludes that “It is not possible to give one single explanation for the decapitations presented in this study. The likelihood is that the individuals represent those who had been decapitated as a result of a judicial practice or those decapitated as a result of warfare.” However, by using the osteological evidence and textual records, she is able to produce a more naunced look into decapitation in this period.
Carty, N. (2015). ‘The Halved Heads’: Osteological Evidence for Decapitation in Medieval Ireland Papers from the Institute of Archaeology, 25 (1) DOI: 10.5334/pia.477