Dr Rebecca Redfern (Curator of Human Osteology) gives the lowdown on her latest research on London skulls, which reveals gruesome evidence of Roman head hunters…
In 1988, 52-63 London Wall was excavated in advance of re-development but a site report and analysis of the finds was never finished. However, the archive was deposited with the Museum. During the excavation, several pits and dumps containing human remains were discovered. Initial findings suggested that these remains were wash-outs from burials or ritual deposits, similar to other crania found from River Thames and Walbrook Stream which date from the Neolithic to late Medieval period.
Our first task was to establish when the remains had been deposited during the Roman period, and work by Julian Hill (MoLA) on the site archive found that the majority had been deposited in the 2nd century A.D. (120-160 A.D.). This post-dates the Boudican rebellion (60 A.D.) and reflects a time when Roman London was at its height, with a major programme of public works taking place, including the building of the fort and refurbishment of the amphitheatre.
The human remains were recorded using the Museum’s Wellcome Osteological Database (WORD), which showed us that a total of 39 complete or partial human skulls and one adult leg bone was present. We also studied them to determine their age-at-death and if there was any evidence for disease or injury. This analysis told us that the sample contained lots of young adult males, a few of whom had healed blows to the head and face, but the majority had multiple blunt force blows to their head and five males had sharp-force weapon injuries, including a decapitation blow to a mandible.
We then examined the material using a light microscope to see if the marks on the human remains had evidence for being in water or moved to the site by water-action. The only evidence we found for the remains being in water was the wing-case of a beetle that we had spotted lodged in the nasal cavity of one male. This beetle lives in shallow stagnant pools of water, but couldn’t provide us with any information about seasonality or how long the remains had been in that pit. We also found evidence for dog gnawing to the jaw area of one male, showing that the skull was fleshed when it went into the pit.
The WORD database contains information for many hundreds of Roman people from London and by comparing our results with these data; we found that only the individuals from this site had evidence for these types of injuries being sustained at the time of death, evidence for dog gnawing and that they were the only sample to be of young adult males.
All of these strands of data and the lack of written and archaeological evidence for violence in London at this time meant that we had to think of reasons that could account for young men being killed and deposited at this site over a forty-year period. The fort and amphitheatre were the most plausible options: trophy heads displayed by the military or people killed in the arena – gladiators or criminals. We hope to do more work on the sample to find out where these men came from in the Roman Empire, which may allow us to understand in more detail how and why they were killed in London.
This research was partially funded by a grant from the City of London Archaeological Trust; the radiography was undertaken by Prof. Jerry Conlogue (Quinnipiac University); the entomological work was carried out by Dr David Smith (University of Birmingham). Express thanks are also given to Dr Tim Thompson (Teeside University), Natasha Powers (MoLA) and Rick Schulting (Oxford University).