Archaeologists are trying to understand why so many bodies on a 1,700-year-old site in Suffolk, England, were buried next to their decapitated heads.
The excavations at Great Whelnetham are now complete, but for the archaeologists who participated in the project, the work is all but finished.
The excavation at Great Whelnetham, near Bury St. Edmunds, England, was in preparation for residential development, but it should not have yielded much. The geology of the area is made of very fine sand, which does not lend itself well to the long-term preservation of bones, said Andrew Peachey, the principal archaeologist of the project, in a BBC radio interview. Shortly after the excavation began, however, the Archaeological Solutions team discovered two badly preserved Roman skeletons near the surface, prompting further investigation
Then they found another skeleton. And then another and another.
In total, the team discovered 52 skeletons at the site of the 4th century AD, of which an astonishing proportion ̵
The cemetery contained skeletons belonging to mixed populations, including a small child and two or three children around the age of 10. Most had lived up to middle age, both men and women, and some were quite old.
In most Roman cemeteries in England, archaeologists expect to find some culturally unconventional burials, but as Peachey told the BBC, it is quite rare to find such a high proportion of deviant burials in a single site, suggesting the presence of a specific population with a specific burial tradition. These so-called deviant burials were probably not deviant to those who participated in them.
Speaking to the BBC, Peachey said that there was "nothing particularly macabre" about the burials, and that they were not the result of the executions. The heads were carefully removed after the death of the individuals and cut from the front just behind the jaw. Peachey said his team is still analyzing the skeletons to understand more, "but we can only speculate on why this ritual could have taken place," he said.
During this period, the Romans sought to remove local traditions and supplant them with them, but some communities resisted, clinging to their beloved beliefs and rituals. This could be an example; some English indigenous cultures venerated heads as part of the soul, leading Peachey to wonder if this could explain the strange burials seen at Great Whelnetham. Another possibility is that this population came from a different part of the world, bringing with it a unique practice of burial, he told the BBC. To test this possibility, the Peachey team is planning an isotopic bone analysis to determine where this population may have originated.
A fascinating possibility is that these people were slaves, Peachey told the BBC. Their relatively good health, as seen in the bones, is a possible indication of this, since slaves were a valuable part of the active population and an "expensive commodity," he said. It is possible that these people were from somewhere in Europe or elsewhere, and were brought to England by the Romans to work in the settlement.
In fact, a striking feature of the skeletons is how well these people were healthy and well made. They had "incredibly well-developed muscular arms and upper body," Peachey told the BBC, a potential sign of agricultural work. They had access to an abundant diet comprising sugars and carbohydrates, which probably contributed to their poor dental hygiene, including dental injuries, abscesses and tooth loss. But for the most part their teeth were healed very well. The skeletons of Somes showed signs of tuberculosis, which at the time were common among agricultural populations, according to the East Anglian Daily Times.
The lab work on the remains should take another six months, followed by a formal scientific study. It will be interesting to see what the researchers will discover, regardless of the results.
[East Anglian Times, BBC]