Skulls from ancient London suggest ritual decapitations

River finds may be remains of head-hunting victims or of defeated gladiators

MARKED FOR DEATH  Among the skull remains that researchers have connected to ritual decapitations in Roman London is this lower jaw with a wound, shown in close-up, that was caused by a sharp-edged weapon.

© Museum of London

Rare evidence of ritual beheadings in ancient Roman-controlled London comes from three dozen human skulls bearing an array of serious wounds, scientists say.

Decapitated heads were placed in closely spaced pits along Walbrook Stream, a tributary of the Thames River, say biological anthropologist Rebecca Redfern of the Museum of London and forensic anthropologist Heather Bonney of the Natural History Museum in London.

Damage from clubs, knives and other weapons suggests that the skulls came from victims of head-hunting by Roman soldiers or from mortally wounded gladiators who fought in a nearby amphitheater, Redfern and Bonney report January 10 in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

“While there are various stray heads with evidence of decapitation from different periods in Roman London, this new paper provides the first coherent evidence on any significant scale for such practices,” says archaeologist Ian Armit of the University of Bradford in England.

Hundreds of human skulls, some dating to before the Roman conquest of Britain began in the year 43, have been found along the Thames and its tributaries since the 19th century. Investigators have debated whether heads were deposited along waterways in rituals or floated to their resting places after coming loose from the bodies of people buried near the river.

Some “river skulls” feature head wounds and may come from locals who were massacred in a failed rebellion against the Romans in the year 60 or 61. Other skulls might be those of Roman soldiers decapitated in 296 for siding with a ruler who had seized power. But the Walbrook skulls don’t fit either time frame.

The Walbrook skulls were discovered in 1989 in waterlogged pits that also contained pieces of leather. Based on relative amounts of bone wear and comparisons with other dated finds near the Walbrook Stream, another researcher previously estimated in unpublished work that the skulls accumulated mainly between the years 120 and 160. No radiocarbon dates have been calculated for the skulls.

Redfern and Bonney identified one or more fractures on each skull. Most wounds resulted from blunt-force blows to the face, mouth and sides of the head around the time of death. Five skulls include lower-jaw injuries from sharp-edged weapons that are consistent with decapitation.

A skull from a 26- to 35-year-old man contains extensive damage at its base and back that represents the clearest evidence of decapitation in the sample, the researchers say. Skull characteristics, including bone thickness, tooth loss and jaw shape, were used to identify the sexes and ages of individuals in the sample.

The researchers present several possibilities for the source of the skulls. Head wounds on men’s skulls unearthed in a gladiator cemetery in Turkey dating to around 200 look much like those on the Walbrook skulls, the researchers say. Heads of gladiators who were killed in Roman London’s amphitheater possibly were placed in pits next to Walbrook Stream, they propose.

In addition, Roman soldiers returning from battles in what is now northern England and Scotland probably brought back enemies’ heads for public display, a common practice of the Roman army. Trophy heads could then have been placed in specially dug pits or other ritual areas near water, Redfern and Bonney suggest.

The Romans also considered decapitation an honorable way to execute powerful people who were condemned to death for serious crimes. This practice could also have produced the skulls found by Walbrook Stream.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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