Archaeologists in the English county of Suffolk recently discovered a grisly and unusual form of burial as part of planned excavations ahead of the construction of a housing development. As they combed through the 52 skeletons at the Roman burial ground at the site, they discovered that 40 percent of the bodies had been buried with the skulls between their legs. The high proportion of decapitated bodies indicates that these were not the victims of execution and that instead ancient Romans had been dismembering the remains post-mortem and moving around the bodies.
The fourth century Roman cemetery near Bury St. Edmunds includes the remains of women and children who, almost certainly, had lived nearby in a contemporary settlement. The decapitation took place post-mortem though it is (currently) unclear if the body was excarnated (stripped of flesh) before this took place. Archaeologist Andrew Peacher commented that the discovery gave scientists a “fascinating insight” into the quirky burial practices of Roman-era Britons. He added that the “statistical anomaly of having so many decapitations there” suggests that “we are looking at a very specific part of the population that followed a very specific form of burial.”
This isn’t the first example of decapitated bodies in ancient Britain. Anthropologist Kristina Killgrove told The Daily Beast that “the number of people whose heads were buried separately from their bodies is quite similar to those found at Eboracum (modern day York) a decade ago.” These excavations revealed that a number of bodies there had been decapitated, punctured by animal attacks, and had asymmetrical musculature (the bane of weight lifters and athletes everywhere). All of which was suggestive that these bodies belonged to gladiators.
Further scientific analysis, reported Kilgrove in 2016, suggested that perhaps these remains belonged not to gladiators but soldiers. At a minimum these tests revealed that those who had been decapitated (all young-middle aged men) were a more genetically diverse group than the cemetery as a whole. Killgrove noted that research by Rebecca Redfern into sites in Iron Age Dorset (in the Southwest of England) also reveals evidence of unusual secondary burial practices. It was previously believed that these kinds of burial practices had died out in the Roman period. Now we see that the York discovery was not just an anomaly, which means that there was more variation in burial practices in the Roman period than was previously thought.
Many of these communities were practicing excarnation, a process by which flesh and soft tissue were stripped away from the bones, thereby allowing for the manipulation and rearrangement of the bones. Britain was certainly distinctive for its strange burial practices, but Britons weren’t the only ones who dismembered human corpses after death.
Ancient Jews also practiced secondary burial. They would first lay out the body on a slab and allow it to decompose for a year. After this period of mourning they would re-enter the tomb, gather up the bones, and place them in a burial niche, a pit (with the bones of family members), or an ossuary (or bone box). Ancient Jewish burial practices are practical: there are issues of space in family and ancestral tombs and secondary burial allowed for the more efficient collection and preservation of human remains.
Early Christians, however, dismembered the bodies of saints for the purpose of sharing religious power and status. The relics (human remains) of holy people—martyrs, biblical heroes, and others—were believed to contain communicable religious power. Possessing a portion of the body of a saint made a church a religious tourist destination for pilgrims. When it came to important saints, however, many people (bishops, the pope, the monarch, and so forth) wanted a piece of a pie and, thus, these remains would be divided. According to a priest named Lucian, in the fifth century the remains of St. Stephen, the first martyr, were “discovered” after a miraculous dream. As both a biblical figure and a martyr his remains were important and, thus, portions of his body were removed and sent to new locations. A portion of his remains, for example, ended up in North Africa and are referred to by St. Augustine. If you’d like to see what is reported to be part of his right arm, for example, you need only go to the Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius, a monastery in Russia.
Somewhat understandably, not every Christian martyr was so keen on the idea of being dismembered after death. Martyrdom stories include threats to those who might disturb the resting place of the saint and disperse their remains to the masses.
There’s no reason to think that all of these practices are connected; Christian relic dispersal and Roman-era British reburial practices are geographically, culturally, and ideologically distinct. But the sheer variety of practices goes to show that being buried with your head between your legs is not as strange as it might at first seem.