FIFTY-SIX mostly decapitated Roman corpses have been discovered by archaeologists working near The Mount in York. Forty-nine young men, and most remarkably seven children were all discovered at what is now thought to have been a Roman cemetery.
“The sheer number of examples, and the high proportion of beheadings in the cemetery” impressed Steve Roskams, a specialist in urban archaeology at the University of York. Commenting on the university’s involvement in this find Roskams said, “Don Brothwell is an expert on many aspects of burial and is being consulted by the York Archaeological Trust on this find. He will be pivotal to the interpretation of results.”
The find, which was made on 24th February, is thought to be the only one of its type in the field of Roman archaeology. The strangest feature is that most of the bodies were decapitated, and one of them was shackled. This has ignited a host of theories surrounding the corpses.
Roskams voiced one theory over the decapitated bodies, “the important point is to get behind the idea that these are victims of crime (pretty clearly they are not), or have been punished because too much care has been taken, and they are accompanied by material suggesting multiparty resonances, not lower order burial.”
“My own interest stems from the fact that they seem to embody clearly Roman attributes, such as the way they are buried, the things which accompany them, but also ‘Celtic’, perhaps indigenous, elements, derived from societies who had a particular reverence for the head.”
“Such a mixing of ideas may seem, at first sight, contradictory. But then the Roman world, just as our own, was riven with contradictions, and so it should not really come as a surprise that archaeological evidence points in two directions at once.”
On the issue of the shackles, Roskams refused to speculate without real knowledge of the evidence. Patrick Ottaway, York Archaeological Trust’s head of fieldwork, agreed: “That really is odd. We’ve never had anything like that before, in Roman Britain or the Roman world.”
This unique find is already working its way into the seminar room according to Roskams. “We use York, and Yorkshire, a lot in our teaching, and this is just one more reason to do so.”
He remarked that the find was being utilised, “in fact, I have already noted the find when talking about Roman approaches to mortuary practices to our second year undergraduates last week.”