Decapitated skeletons found at Roman cemetery dig in Suffolk

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Archaeologists have uncovered a rare collection of decapitated skeletons while excavating a site in Suffolk.

Decapitated skeletons found at Roman cemetery dig in Suffolk
Archaeologist excavated Roman cemetery with high proportion of deviant burials
[Credit: Archaeological Solutions]

The discovery took place at a dig in Great Whelnetham, near Bury St Edmunds, ahead of a planned Havebury Housing development in the village.

A total of 52 skeletons have been found, with 17 that have been decapitated with the head placed by or between the legs or feet.




The decapitated burials, which include both men, women and one child, represents up to 40% of the recorded graves at the site, which is a “very high percentage”.

According to archaeologist Andy Peachey, 60% of the graves at the site, which dates to the 4th century, could be classified as ‘deviant’ – placed in a manner which does not conform to the most common Roman burial rite.

Decapitated skeletons found at Roman cemetery dig in Suffolk
Decapitated skeleton [Credit: Archaeological Solutions]

“It is rare to find such a high proportion of decapitated burials in Britain,” he said. “Perhaps only half a dozen other sites in Britain demonstrate this.

“However, low proportions of decapitated burials are a common component of Roman cemeteries.”




Mr Peachey, from excavation company Archaeological Solutions, said the remains did not indicate executions.

“This appears to be a careful funeral rite that may be associated with a particular group within the local population, possibly associated with a belief system (cult) or a practice that came with a group moved into the area,” he said.

Decapitated skeletons found at Roman cemetery dig in Suffolk
Decapitated skeleton with head between its feet [Credit: Archaeological Solutions]

“The incisions through the neck were post-mortem and were neatly placed just behind the jaw – an execution would cut lower through the neck and with violent force, and this is not present anywhere.”

Mr Peachey added the skeletal analysis is beginning to reveal some interesting results from the site.




“We have a fairly evenly mixed population by gender, with a couple of juvenile skeletons (nine-10 years), but most were at least middle aged if not older,” he said.

“They were well nourished, and several had very robust upper arms/bodies consistent with a working agricultural population.

Decapitated skeletons found at Roman cemetery dig in Suffolk
Decapitated skeleton with head under knee [Credit: Archaeological Solutions]

“However, their diet was plentiful enough to include significant natural sugars and carbohydrates, resulting in poor dental hygiene.

“Many dental abscesses and losses were present but most were healed, while several had also carried TB – also common in rural-agricultrual populations.”




The archaeologists are now beginning the analysis of the Roman occupants and artefacts, and will relate the cemetery to other Roman burial grounds across England.

Once completed, a report will be published and artefacts deposited with the Suffolk County Council archaeological archive.

Author: Michael Steward | Source: East Anglian Daily Times [January 08, 2019]