Thursday, September 18, 2008
The Roman version of Washington Irving
Mystery of 49 headless Romans who weren't meant to haunt us
By Daya Alberge, Arts Correspondent
ARCHAEOLOGISTS have unearthed a Roman cemetery in York with the skeletons of 49 beheaded young men.
Experts from the York Archaeological Trust have yet to explain why the men had been decapitated. One of the victims was buried with thick iron rings around his ankles that had been forged on to him while he was alive. Patrick Ottaway, the trust’s head of fieldwork, said: “That really is odd. We’ve never had anything like that before, in Roman Britain or the Roman world.”
There are also skeletons of seven children, though their bodies were not mutilated. Dr Ottaway believes that the men were beheaded as part of a ritual in order to ensure that they could not haunt the living.
The skulls were removed after death and placed in the grave by their feet, legs or pelvis. Analysis of the bones has suggested that all of the adult skeletons were young men under the age of about 45. Dr Ottaway said: “Why were they decapitated? Had they been executed or killed in battle? Was this a military burial site for soldiers of York, or were they foreigners from another part of the Roman Empire with curious customs? The head was considered the seat of the soul in the Roman period, and by removing it it was perhaps thought that the deceased were prevented from coming back to haunt the living.”
It is the first discovery of its kind in Roman Britain. “There are ones and twos of decapitated men in Britain and Europe. To find such a large group is very unusual.”
The skeletons date from about AD200, roughly when Emperor Septimius Severus came to York with an army to fight in Scotland.
A team from the York Archaeological Trust made the discovery in a small plot of land on The Mount in York during a three-month excavation at the site, which is being redeveloped by building contractors.
The trust targeted the area because it lies alongside the main Roman road leading to York from Tadcaster. Burials near settlements were forbidden under Roman rule so most cemeteries were located alongside roads into towns such as York. Roman burial customs were varied; some people were cremated, while others were buried unburnt and usually survive as skeletons.
Now the skeletons, and other remains including pottery found with them, have been taken to be cleaned and analysed by the trust. Another intriguing find was that of a young child buried in a casket.
It was unusual for children of that age to receive elaborate funerals, so this could be a much-loved child, or one from an important family.
Dr Ottaway said he would be liaising with archaeologists abroad to see whether burial rituals from Rhineland, where many soldiers in the army originated, or North Africa, where the emperor was born, fitted the York deaths.