Medieval man with facial deformity may have had head drilled in an exorcism
A medieval or Saxon man whose skeleton was found in a Roman villa in Hampshire, England, may have been buried in the countryside because of a jaw deformity that made his community consider him plagued by spirits. It’s also possible the community had earlier trepanned his skull to exorcise the evil spirits.
A second skeleton, found at the villa under collapsed tiles, may be the remains of a man on whom a ceiling collapsed, says Hampshire Archaeology. It’s not known exactly when the men lived.
The man with the deformed jaw, who died about age 35 to 45, had a missing right hand and missing foot bones, possibly a punishment or a result of desecration by grave robbers. His skull had been trepanned, or drilled, which also could have been to relieve effects of his jaw deformity. His remains and the remains of the other man at the Rockbourne Roman villa were excavated in the 1960s.
An aerial view of Rockbourne Roman villa excavations in the 1960s showing the two burials ( Hampshire Archaeology photo )
Archaeologists say the man, who was about 5 feet 7 inches (170 cm), was buried in a lonely place and weighed down with stones. His skeleton was found face down in a shallow grave in 1965.
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“His skull had some interesting pathology,” says a blog called Hampshire Archaeology by Dave Allen. “His lower jaw was deformed on the left side and his chin pointed. The deformity had probably occurred before the bones were fully fused—nine months—and may have resulted from a problematic birth. His face must have appeared quite distorted, but tooth wear suggests that he managed to eat quite effectively.
“The left side of the skull has a hole on the frontal bone, just below the temporal ridge. This trepanning, near the muscle attachment for the lower jaw, was presumably done in an attempt to relieve chronic pain or exorcise the bad spirits associated with his deformity. He survived the operation and the bone had healed, but his ultimate burial in such a lonely place, face down and weighed down with stones, suggests that the community were worried that the evil influence that caused his troubles might still be around. The date of this skeleton is not known either, but the Saxon or early medieval periods seem most likely.”
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The other skeleton, found earlier, in 1962 was on its back and covered by debris and roofing tiles that were so uniform in placement that archaeologists speculate the roof may have collapsed. But the excavator, Morley Hewitt, said tiles were underneath the man’s skeleton, too. “So perhaps we will never know whether this [collapse] was the case, but it does seem plausible that he was taking shelter in an abandoned building when it fell in on top of him,” says the Hampshire Archaeology blog.
Collapsed tiles from the limestone roof (Hampshire Archaeology blog)
This man under the tiles was no older than his early 40s when he died. He was 5 feet 11 inches (180.3 cm). Because his bones were crushed by the fallen roof archaeologists didn’t reconstruct the skull until 1976. “Morley Hewitt felt that the individual had a ‘long, thin face’ of a type considered to be Saxon, but whatever his appearance, a fairly immediate post-Roman date seems likely,” wrote Allen.
The mosaic floor of a swastika-like design in Rockbourne villa’s dining room (Mike Faherty/ Wikimedia Commons )
Rockbourne Roman Villa is near Fordingbridge. The site was inhabited from the Late Iron Age into the Roman era, which ended about 410 AD.
Featured image: The trepanning of the man’s skull, the edges of which had healed, may have been to relieve pain from the deformity of his jaw. ( Photo by Hampshire Archaeology )
By Mark Miller