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Why Did a Roman Era Corpse Have His Tongue Cut Out and a Stone Placed in His Mouth?

Why Did a Roman Era Corpse Have His Tongue Cut Out and a Stone Placed in His Mouth?


There was a time when people believed it possible for corpses to rise from the dead and haunt the living. Many modern people know now that zombies, vampires and other malevolent creatures are pure fiction, but there is evidence in many places and eras of deviant burial practices meant to keep the dead in their graves.

A new deviant burial has been revealed by some English archaeologists, who have identified a skeleton from Roman times buried face down with a small, flat stone in its mouth, apparently in place of his tongue. They can only speculate why the man’s corpse was treated this way, but say it may have been to prevent the man from rising from his grave to haunt the living.

It is the first known tongue-mutilation burial from the era of the 3 rd or 4 th century AD, though not the first face-down burial. Researchers from Historic England are uncertain as to how the man lost his tongue. They think he was in his 30s or so.

Another face-down burial. 1000BC, Cliffs End Farm

Another face-down burial. 1000BC, Cliffs End Farm (Wessex Archaeology)

The cemetery from which the skeleton had been exhumed years ago is in Stanwick, England, not far from the river Nene. Researchers had preserved the remains to study them when they had enough resources.

Simon Mays, an expert on skeletons with Historic England, told the Guardian that the researchers speculate the man may have been mentally ill and possibly cut out his own tongue. Alternatively, this may have been a type of punishment or to make the corpse incomplete.

“There are Germanic law codes which talk about cutting people’s tongues out because they spread malicious accusations against other people,” Mr. Mays told the Guardian. “We’re looking into it at the moment, but I don’t know whether there are any Roman laws to that effect. Feedback I’ve had hasn’t indicated that there were … although that is of course still possible. We don’t know much about practices in Roman Britain as opposed to Rome itself.”

All that remained of the corpse was the skeleton. The Guardian asked Mr. Mays why they speculate the tongue had been cut out. Natural decomposition removed all flesh from the corpse, and only bones remained.

He replied there are about 10 other burials from the time that have missing parts of the body that were replaced with objects. He said the most mysterious ones are where the head has been cut off and replaced with a pot or stone. In this case a stone was used in place of the tongue at the front part of the mouth.

The researchers’ theory was bolstered by the fact that there would be bacterial infection of the bones of the mouth if the tongue was cut out. They confirmed the presence of infection.

In 1991 archaeologists discovered the cemetery, which had 35 skeletons. But archaeologists did not have enough staff to study the skull under controlled conditions. They had taken the skull out in a block of soil to preserve it.

The man’s corpse had been interred face down, possibly to prevent him from rising up from death to haunt the living.

The man’s corpse had been interred face down, possibly to prevent him from rising up from death to haunt the living. (Historic England photo)

Several other skeletons buried facedown are known from the Roman and early Saxon eras. Archaeologists speculate that treating human remains in this manner indicated fear on the part of the community, a way to ensure the corpse does not rise from the dead to haunt the living.

In Ireland in 2011, archaeologists found larger stones in the mouths of two skulls from the 8 th century, the Daily Mail reported. But these stones are not small and flat like the one found at Stanwick. They do not appear to have been a replacement of the tongue.

In the Irish case, the two men, one aged 40 to 60 and the other probably in his 20s, were laid side by side in the grave with the large stones stuck in their mouths.

The researchers thought maybe they had found a Black Plague burial. During the medieval era people were buried with stones shoved into their mouths in what the Daily Mail called vampire slaying rituals. But they ruled it out because vampire stories weren’t told until the 16 th century, and these men were buried far earlier.

“In this case, the stones in the mouth might have acted as a barrier to stop revenants from coming back from their graves,” Christopher Read told the Daily Mail. Dr. Read was the lead archaeologist on the project, which at first was meant to be a study of medieval churches in Roscommon County, Ireland.

Unusual burials termed deviant burials have been found in various places around the world from various eras. They differ greatly in how the corpses have been defiled.

Featured image: A corpse of the 3 rd or 4 th centuries AD apparently had its tongue cut and replaced with a small, flat stone, which is visible in this photo from Historic England.

By Mark Miller

Mark Miller's picture


Mark Miller has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and is a former newspaper and magazine writer and copy editor who's long been interested in anthropology, mythology and ancient history. His hobbies are writing and drawing.

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