Unusual burials: a Roman cemetery on the margins

Don Walker and Niamh Carty

Osteologists Niamh Carty and Don Walker are studying human skeletons excavated at Liverpool Street for Crossrail. As well as 3300 16th to 18th century skeletons, the team uncovered a handful of unusual Roman burials. The story was revealed on BBC Four’s Digging for Britain on Thursday the 17th March. Here, Don and Niamh tell us more about this fascinating discovery…

The Romans buried their dead outside the limits of their towns to separate them from the living.  Cemeteries and funerary monuments, including impressive mausolea, lined the roads into big towns. London, or Londinium, was one of those towns. Our recent excavation at Liverpool Street for Crossrail was located just outside the Roman city walls, in a flood-prone area, known as the Walbrook valley, after a river that once dominated the landscape.

It was close to the banks of this river that our archaeologists discovered seven burials, some only partially preserved due to disturbance by sewer works in the Victorian period.  While some were individual burials, others had been stacked, quite possibly at the same time. Some graves were aligned parallel to the road, others perpendicular to it. However, the most striking feature was the osteological evidence for decapitation in three of the individuals buried here.

We studied the well-preserved neck vertebrae of the skeletons, which revealed cut marks caused by at least two blows from a very sharp implement, perhaps a sword or an axe. Some of these blows had cut all the way though the vertebrae thereby separating the head from the body. The form of the cuts or lesions suggested that they had occurred sometime around the time of death. Perhaps they represent executions or even a ritual carried out soon after death?  Whatever the case, the angles of the cuts suggest that the necks were flexed, with the heads bent forward, when the blows were administered. Although the heads were placed in the same graves as the bodies, they were not necessarily in the right place, for example, the head of one individual was found between its knees.

Other Roman decapitation burials have been encountered, particularly in rural cemeteries, and appear to occur far more frequently in Britain than on the continent. Perhaps this was part of an earlier custom, or perhaps this island, on the western fringes of the Roman Empire, experienced increased levels of violence and retribution.

There was one other piece of intriguing evidence in the form of a large iron ring, which was found on the right wrist of a decapitated male, who died between the ages of 26–35 years. The object  seems too heavy to be a piece of jewellery, when X-rayed there was no obvious hinge and the opening is of a size that it would have been easy to slip the item on and off, so it’s unlikely to have been a manacle. Could it have been placed on the wrists after death in an attempt to prevent the deceased from returning to haunt the living? Similar rings were uncovered on the legs of two burials from another cemetery we excavated in the Walbrook valley. The proximity of the river and the problem of graves washing out of the cemeteries during flood events may mean there was a purely practical reason for the ring, weighing the body down. We may never know but our research continues…

The findings featured on Digging For Britain on BBC Four at 9pm on the 17 March.  If you missed it you can catch up on IPlayer (for a limited time only).

  • From the experts
  • Science
  • Roman
  • Research
  • Excavation
  • Osteoarchaeology

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