An archeological dig in Suffolk has uncovered 52 excellently preserved skeletons at a Roman era cemetery. Alongside cemetery treasure, diggers have uncovered something far more grizzly – many of the skeletons had been beheaded!
Digging at Great Whelnetham ahead of a new housing project, it was found that only seventeen of the skeletons had been buried in a “normal” fashion, with the remaining bodies having had the head removed and placed beside the body before burial. The skeletons were a mix of middle aged men and women with three children having also having been buried.
With the ground being composed of fine sand it wasn’t expected that any skeletons would have been preserved, the finds coming as a shock to Andrew Peachey of Archaeological Solutions, the company carrying out the dig at the Suffolk site who admitted that his team wasn’t “expecting to find this many or that well preserved.”
Romans were generally buried in the same manner as today, the body laid on it’s back and arranged neatly and respectfully, however most cemeteries will contain “deviations” from the norm. The proportion of deviant burials at Great Whelnetham however are unusual, suggesting that beheading the deceased was perhaps the norm in this community.
“What you rarely find – really only in three or four cemeteries throughout the country – is such a very high proportion of deviant burials, to the point where, in this population, it should actually be regarded as the normal practice.”Andrew Peachey, Archaeological Solutions
The site at Great Whelnetham has been occupied since the mid to late first century and it’s believed that those interred at the cemetery were residents of the Roman settlement as opposed to executions of criminals or enemies. The decapitated remains show signs of having had the head removed carefully, cleanly cut from the front below the jaw as opposed to a lower violent blow from the back as usually seen in criminal decapitations with an axe or sword.
The general condition of the bones and teeth found suggest that the deceased adults may have been involved in agricultural work, possessing particularly well developed upper bodies that can be attributed to manual labour. The teeth show that they were well fed and had ready access to both carbohydrates and sugars.
The reasoning for their unusual burial practices is as yet unknown but Peachey speculates that the populace may have belonged to a known Roman cult that venerated the head, believing it to be a part of the soul. The cult were known to remove the head prior to the burial of the dead. A second theory suggests that the deceased remains may have belonged to an immigrant slave populace where the practice was the norm.
The skeletons have been moved to a museum archive and it’s expected that future testing on the bones will reveal more about the life and death of those interred at the cemetery, including potentially their place of origin.