One of the decapitated individuals found in the roman cemetery recently excavated at Great Whelnetham. The skull can be seen tucked under the knees. (PHOTO: Archaeological Solutions)

This month has brought a flurry of Roman news (as you can see on preceding pages), and one more discovery of this period is a 4th-century cemetery from Suffolk that was home to an unusually high number of ‘deviant’ burials.

Some 52 skeletons were uncovered on the site at Great Whelnetham, near Bury St Edmunds. Of these, 60 per cent were identified as ‘deviant’ in some way. The term means that an individual has been laid to rest in an atypical way, including prone burials, other unusual body positions, and decapitations. On this site, two thirds of the deviant burials had had their heads removed. While these types of burials were not uncommon during the roman period, appearing most frequently in the countryside – for example, at Horcott pit, Fairford, Oxfordshire (see CA 244) – the Suffolk cemetery is rare in terms of the sheer number of burials affected.

Of the beheaded burials, many of the skulls had been placed between the individuals’ feet, tucked under their legs, or laid at the bottom of the grave. Typically, this practice seems to have been applied more commonly to men, but on this site women as well as at least one child also appear to have had their heads removed.

Opinion remains divided on whether individuals buried in these types of graves were beheaded before or after their deaths. Some researchers, such as Dr Katie Tucker, who has extensively studied roman decapitations, suggest that these types of burials commonly represent some form of execution. But the team from archaeological Solutions, which carried out the excavation at Great Whelnetham, believes that, in this case at least, the heads were more likely to have been removed after death as some kind of funeral rite, since they were carefully cut from the front of the neck near the jaw, and not from behind as is more typical of executions.

As bones take a while to lose their elasticity after death (meaning that ‘dead’ bone will break/ cut in a similar pattern to living ‘bone’ for a period after interment), distinguishing between an injury that occurred at the time of death and one that occurred soon after is a difficult, if not impossible, task. These skeletons are now undergoing further post-excavation analysis, though, and hopefully they will be able to provide further insights into the lives and deaths of these individuals.

This article appeared in CA 349.

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