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Decapitated skeleton excavated at Great Whelnetham, UK

Roman Burial Site Found in England Includes 52 Skeletons With 17 Bizarre After Death Decapitations

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Sometimes archaeologists make grim and even shocking discoveries. In England, there has been one such find. Experts have found a cemetery, dating from the Roman era which contained a great many skeletons and a significant number of them were found decapitated. The reason why so many skeletons were beheaded is something of a mystery, but it is believed that they were related to some local cult or unusual belief.

Decapitated skeletons

The gruesome find was found as part of a routine investigation of the area by Archaeological Solutions, before a planned housing development. The burial site was found during “a dig in Great Whelnetham, near Bury St Edmunds” according to the East Anglican Daily Times.  The unearthing of the cemetery was a big surprise to the team and soon they realized that a great many of the remains had been beheaded.  In total some 52 skeletons were found, including men, women and children. Some 17 of the dead has been decapitated and their heads carefully placed between their legs.

17 of the 52 skeletons were decapitated, some had the skull placed between their legs (Archaeological Solutions)

17 of the 52 skeletons were decapitated, some had the skull placed between their legs (Archaeological Solutions)

Archaeologists have estimated that the cemetery dates to the 4 th century when the area was part of the Roman Empire. This was densely populated at this time and there were major settlements in what was a rich agricultural region. It is believed that the cemetery was used by the  Romano-Britons who lived at   Great Whelnetham, which “may date back to the 1st Century” reports the BBC.

The number of decapitated remains is very high and “represents up to 40% of the recorded graves at the site” according to the BBC. Finding decapitated human skeletons is not unusual in Roman era burials, but to find such a high percentage is most atypical. This high number of decapitated burials is not the only unusual thing about the cemetery. Many of the burials were not typical of the period and do not conform to the burial rites of the majority of the finds from the 4 th century and could be classed as deviant burials.

To find this many decapitated and oddly placed remains is unusual. (Archaeological Solutions)

To find this many decapitated and oddly placed remains is unusual. (Archaeological Solutions)

Deviant Burials

These were burial practices that were usually associated with marginalized groups such as executed criminals, outsiders, and witches, who were not seen as part of the community or were viewed as a threat. The treatment of the dead at this cemetery, however, does not indicate that they were seen as deviants or threats. It is believed that the decapitated remains were not those of executed criminals because the heads were removed post-mortem and the incisions are not compatible with an execution by beheading. Moreover, the remains were interred with care and there is evidence of ritual which would suggest that the dead were part of a community and would seem to exclude the idea that they were outsiders or threats.

An Archaeological Solutions expert excavates a burial (Archaeological Solutions)

An Archaeological Solutions expert excavates a burial (Archaeological Solutions)

The cemetery and 4 th century Britain

The experts believe that the decapitated remains and other unusual burial practices would indicate that they had found evidence of funeral rites associated with some cult or religious belief. Mr Peachy, one of the lead archaeologists on the dig stated that the decapitation of the dead  “was possibly associated with a belief system (cult) or a practice that came with a group moved into the area.” It seems likely that the removal of heads and other funerary practices would indicate that local settlement had their own unique belief system and religious practices. reports that the cemetery represents, “a very specific part of the population that followed a very specific tradition of burial.”

The remains have been removed for analysis (Archaeological Solutions)

The remains have been removed for analysis (Archaeological Solutions)

The bones have been removed and they have been analyzed in order to provide further insights into Romano-British settlement in the area in the Late Roman Empire. The initial analysis has revealed that the dead adults were mostly middle-aged when they died and were probably physically strong, indicating that they were probably farmers or farm laborers. They were well-nourished, and many had poor teeth, and some died of tuberculosis.

The grisly find of so many decapitated skeletons is very significant because it shows that there was a great diversity in funerary rites in Roman Britain. Apparently, the local settlement had developed their own practices or were members of a cult that was unique to the area or had come with a group of outsiders. The find demonstrates the great diversity that existed in Roman-British society in the 4 th century. 

Top image: Decapitated skeleton excavated at Great Whelnetham, UK    Source: Archaeological Solutions

By Ed Whelan

Ed Whelan's picture


My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a... Read More

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