The mystery of the 17 decapitated skeletons found in an ancient Roman cemetery

A total of 17 decapitated skeletons that, according to experts, date from about 1,700 years ago, have been found in three roman cemeteries at Knobb’s Farm in Cambridgeshire, UK.

As collected Science Alert, the archaeologists who excavated the place believe that they are inmates executed for violating Roman laws. However, academics unaffiliated with the research expressed mixed opinions on this explanation.

Cemeteries house the burials of 52 persons, and the 17 decapitated bodies include those of nine men and eight women and all over the age of 25 at the time of death, a team of researchers reported in an article published online May 19 in the journal Britannia.

In many cases, the heads of decapitated individuals were buried next to their feet and pottery was placed where their head would normally have been. Some of the bodies were also placed face down in their graves.

Investigators noted that the number of capital crimes in Roman law increased dramatically during the 3rd and 4th centuries, around the time these skeletons were buried.

Surviving archaeological evidence suggests that the Roman military used Knobb’s farm as a supply center, and would have dealt harshly with any infraction, say the researchers.

During the third and fourth centuries, the penalties available under Roman law became increasingly severe. The number of crimes carrying the death penalty increased from 14 in the early third century to around 60 with the death of Constantine. in 337 AD, “the researchers write in the journal article, noting that the safety concern it was one of the reasons for the increase in the death penalty.

“During the 3rd and 4th centuries, the penalties available under Roman law became increasingly severe”

Although they were possibly executed, the individuals were buried with ceramic vessels and in some cases they were placed in coffins.

“A beheaded woman had by far the richest collection of grave goods, having been buried with two pots and a necklace of charcoal beads,” he said. Isabel Lisbon, the archaeologist who led the excavations. Channel charcoal is a type of charcoal that ignites easily.

“According to Roman law, family and friends could request lto return the body of a criminal executed for burial“the team wrote in the magazine article.

If that policy were the case, it could explain why the executed people were allowed something like a proper burial.

The people executed were probably not slaves, since “slaves had no status” and they probably would not have been given burials, much less coffins and grave goods, Lisbon said.

Other experts disagree

But other experts disagree. “What we know about the sites of Roman judicial executions suggests that they were mainly in cities and towns, as a public spectacle and for its deterrent effect“said Simon Cleary, Emeritus Professor of Roman Archeology at the University of Birmingham in the UK, who noted that Knobb’s farm was not near any major town or city.

A law made by an emperor in Rome was difficult to enforce in a distant place, Cleary said. “Really, depended on local magistrates, landowners or state officials do or not do what the emperor ordered, “he adds.

“If the decapitated burials were the result of such legislation, then one would expect to find execution burials, particularly beheadings, throughout the empire. This just doesn’t happen. Beheading burials are almost entirely confined to Britain“, dijo Cleary.

“So unless Britain was an area that took imperial legislation much more seriously than the rest of the empire, this suggests that explanations must be sought within Great BritainCleary added.

Cleary added that he believes it is possible that these people were executed, but that Roman law may have had nothing to do with the reasons why they were killed. “In the fourth century, the Roman army had for centuries been literally a law in itself, with no return for civilians, “Cleary said.

“Roman Britain can be very, very strange at times, especially in treating the dead.”

“Sometimes Roman Britain can be very, very strange, especially in the treatment of the dead; there are many other practices besides burials of the beheaded that a our eyes seem strange. In the eyes of the people of the time they may have seemed perfectly understandable, “Cleary said.

Other scholars also expressed doubts that Roman law had much to do with beheaded burials. “Personally, I think it is highly unlikely that the executions at the Knobb farm had anything to do with the late Roman legal processes,” he said. Caroline Humfress, Director of the Institute for Constitutional and Legal Research at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

“If they have a judicial context, it is more likely to be localized and related to summary executions,” which is an execution carried out without trial, Humfress said. However, other scholars thought that these people might have been executed according to Roman law.

“The official execution seems the best explanation for the Knobb’s Farm cases, “said Judith Evans Grubbs, professor of Roman history at Emory University in Atlanta.” Official executions would be carried out under the authority of the provincial governor, not local justice, and they would reflect imperial ideas of criminality rather than local, “Grubbs said.

This expert pointed out that women in the Roman Empire were often the targets of accusations of sorcery and adultery, which could be considered capital crimes by the Romans.


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