Archaeologists have been left puzzled by the discovery of numerous decapitated skeletons which were found in a Roman-era cemetery in Suffolk, England. At this site, 52 different skeletons were observed that had been buried during the 4th century AD, yet only 17 of these skeletons had been found buried complete.
As ScienceAlert reports, the vast majority of these skeletons in the Roman cemetery were completely decapitated, with their heads placed in odd positions with some near the skeleton’s feet and others beside the bodies. However, archaeologists were also baffled to find that in some cases only heads were buried by themselves, with the bodies nowhere in sight.
The discovery of so many headless skeletons at the Suffolk site prompted archaeologist Andrew Peachey from Archaeological Solutions to note, “We weren’t expecting to find this many or that well preserved.”
The Roman-era cemetery was initially discovered during preparatory work in Great Whelnetham for a new housing community to be built, and while this town was at one point a very large Roman settlement where Romans lived for at least 2,000 years, it had been assumed that no human remains would be found owing to the soft and fine sand that surrounds the area.
Romans were not unlike us when it came to burying their dead, and normally bodies were laid out completely flat on their backs, with bodies in long and orderly rows in cemeteries. However, archaeologists have stated that occasionally, there are what they call “deviant” burials which are non-traditional, and the decapitated skeletons found in the Suffolk, England cemetery would certainly be included in this category.
It appears their heads were removed after death, but no one knows why.https://t.co/KoP8afi6Bi
— ScienceAlert (@ScienceAlert) January 8, 2019
Because so many decapitated skeletons were found in this particular cemetery, Peachey suggested that rather than consider them deviant burials, they may have actually once been the norm there.
“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.”
Archaeologists also stated that the dead buried in this Roman cemetery had not been executed and had all died normally. It was only after their deaths that their heads had been very carefully removed. According to Peachey, it is very possible that the people buried here may have been part of some kind of cult that valued heads and believed that they were the seats of the souls, in which case the heads would have been used to perform special funerary rites.
It may also be that these individuals were not actually native Romans either and may have been brought to England as slaves, and then buried according to their own native customs. To learn whether this may have been the case, Peachey suggested that analyzing the isotope ratios in the bones of these skeletons may show where the people originally came from.
“Part of our analysis going forward, and one of these emerging sciences which is continually getting better and better, is looking at proteins in the bones, is looking at isotope ratios in the bones, and we’d like to know where this population came from, and this might be able to tell us more about that.”
With such a large mystery to solve at this Roman cemetery in England, archaeologists are hopeful that they will eventually discover why these skeletons were decapitated by learning more about their lives.