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Views of the cleaned Anglo-Saxon woman’s skull.      Source: G. Cole / Antiquity Publications Ltd

Anglo-Saxon Woman’s Lips, Nose and Scalp Sliced Off – But Why?

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A team of archaeologists in England have forensically analyzed the mutilated skull of a young Anglo-Saxon woman revealing that her nose, lips and possibly her scalp had all been sliced off while she was still living.

History books , and especially works of ancient law , are full of references to horrifically violent punishments for crimes, but a new study presents the earliest physical evidence of a person having had her nose and lips cut off. What’s more, the researchers also found evidence that she might have been scalped, left untreated - and banished, she wandered into the English countryside to die.

A Remote, Lonely And Bloody Death

Located 43 kilometers (26.7 miles) from Basingstoke in England’s county of Hampshire, the Oakridge archaeological site was discovered in the 1960s on the western boundary of the Anglo-Saxon estate of Chineham. This expansive excavation zone comprises a Romano-British burial site and an Iron Age settlement, but records indicated that the woman’s mutilated skull had been discovered in an isolated burial somewhere between here and the parish of Basing.

A study published in the journal Antiquity tomorrow details the work of a team of English archaeologists led by Dr Garrard Cole from University College London , and the paper presents radiocarbon dating results determining the woman had lived between 776 and 899 AD, which means the horrific practice is much older than was previously thought.

Occlusal view of the maxilla, showing the erupted left first molar. The third molars are visible in their crypts. (G. Cole / Antiquity Publications Ltd)

Occlusal view of the maxilla, showing the erupted left first molar. The third molars are visible in their crypts. (G. Cole / Antiquity Publications Ltd )

She Was Killed For A Crime “Greater Than Theft”

Dating to 776-899 AD, a study of the female’s dental and cranial DNA determined that she was 15-18 years old when she died, which is about a century before the criminal codes that prescribed this form of punishment were first written, indicating that the practice of facial mutilation was on the go long before laws made them official. Evidence also suggests the young Anglo-Saxon woman , who had her nose and lips cut off, may also have been scalped, further indicating that she had come up against the bloodthirsty lawmakers of 8 th/9th century England.

According to the new , King Edmund s (AD 921–946) third law code recommended “scourging, removal of the scalp and mutilation of the little finger,” as the penalty for thieving slaves, and King Cnut s (AD 1016–1035) second law code calls for the “removal of the eyes, nose, ears, upper lip and scalp for a “greater crime than theft” and lists the removal of women’s noses and ears, should they be accused of adultery. However, this woman’s skull represents “the first archaeological example of this particularly brutal form of facial disfigurement,” ever discovered in Anglo-Saxon England.

Close up of views of the facial trauma: a) the oblique frontal cut, b) from the front, c) from above, d) the anterior of the maxilla, e) the linear cut through the lateral margin of the nasal aperture, f) the sharp nick on the right side. The cuts and nicks are marked by arrows. (G. Cole / Antiquity Publications Ltd)

Close up of views of the facial trauma: a) the oblique frontal cut, b) from the front, c) from above, d) the anterior of the maxilla, e) the linear cut through the lateral margin of the nasal aperture, f) the sharp nick on the right side. The cuts and nicks are marked by arrows. (G. Cole / Antiquity Publications Ltd )

A Faceless And Shameful Death

An analysis of the woman’s facial wounds was revealing in that that they showed no signs of healing, and this suggested to the researchers that she had died shortly after the removal of the nose, lips, and possibly her scalp, through blood loss or infection. Attempting to account for the woman’s isolated burial, Dr Cole wrote that it was most probable that the woman had been tried for a crime and became “a social outcast,” who had been excluded from burial in the local cemetery, which Dr Cole thinks in itself might have been further punishment for her crime(s).

Chemicals known as stable isotopes hold genetic information pertaining to animals and people’s diets, and changes in locations can be tracked through changes in isotopic structure. The new paper also publishes a study of the isotopes in this woman’s deformed skull . These results indicated that the woman was most likely “not local,” and in conclusion the scientists think her violent death provides “brutal confirmation of the violent ways Anglo-Saxon society reacted to those who contravened the social mores of the day”.

Its Never Been Safer To Be Alive

The woman’s injuries were all found to be consistent with those documented punishments for female “thieving slaves and adulteresses” and although mutilations of this kind do not appear in the written record until the tenth century AD, this new paper shows the dark practice emerged at least a century earlier which will add to the greater meaning, and place in society, of facial disfigurement and mutilation.

And for us, let this new paper be a reminder that we inhabit the planet at a time when it has never been safer to be alive, a world in which adultery, for example, brings stiff financial repercussions on the one who strayed, but at the very least, we get to keep our faces.

The full paper is available from Antiquity, D.O.I. 10.15184/aqy.2020.176

Top image: Views of the cleaned Anglo-Saxon woman’s skull.      Source: G. Cole / Antiquity Publications Ltd

By Ashley Cowie

Comments

Of course men were subject to the same laws. There’s been many archaeological examples, even in anglo saxon culture, of men who had been mutilated and executed either for crimes or buried in ‘deviant’ burials due to some bad reputation, perceived or otherwise. The punishment might seem abhorrent to you, but you have to admit that crime was surely MUCH lower then. So, maybe you should ask yourself if modern punishments are harsh enough.

No matter the crime, we look at this kind of abhorrent punishment through our modern lens and ask ourselves how this could happen to this young girl?

My one question at this point is: Was this kind of punishment meted out to men as well?

Pete Wagner's picture

From the Roman and Persian invasions and through today, we are in the midst of sick, evil people who out of jealousy hate our beauty the most, and find reasons to deface and destroy it for their own sick enjoyment.  While not as horrific as what might be real or imagined, it remains in full force with far reach today, with the fad of tattooing (devil’s trickery) being perhaps the most apparent form.

Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.

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