Archaeologists have discovered 40 beheaded skeletons in a large Roman era cemetery near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, England. This strange find joins another discovery of decapitated skeletons from the ancient past in the area.
Criminals, Social Pariahs, or a “Marginally Normal” Burial Practice?
The latest find was made during construction work for a high-speed railway alongside the cemetery in Fleet Marston, the largest cemetery of its kind in Buckinghamshire, according to Sky News. Of the 425 bodies exhumed by archaeologists, 40 of the skeletons had their heads removed. In most cases the skull was found placed between the legs or next to the person’s feet.
Experts believe that the beheaded skeletons belong to people who may have been criminals or outcasts in their community, or the bodies were just decapitated in a “normal, albeit marginal” burial practice from the late Roman period. The archaeological team also found several cremations at the cemetery, a practice which was apparently less common during the late Roman period.
One of the beheaded skeletons found in a late Roman cemetery near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, England. ( HS2)
Other Finds at Fleet Marston
The archaeological team from COPA has spent a year on excavations at the cemetery and an adjacent settlement which date back to roughly 2,000 years ago. Apart from the skeletal remains they also uncovered more than 1,200 coins at Fleet Marston – which suggests that the area may have also been important economically. A few domestic objects have also been found, including brooches, spoons, dice, and bells.
The archaeologists will continue studying the artifacts that were recovered from the site at Fleet Marston, with the goal of discovering more about the people who lived there in the late Roman period. What were the lifestyles, diets, origins, and beliefs like for the ancient people? The archaeologists hope they will find out!
Another Cemetery with Beheaded Skeletons in Buckinghamshire
This is not the first discovery of this kind in Buckinghamshire. In February 2020 local newspapers announced the discovery of mass graves containing 42 skeletons during a construction project not far from Milton Keynes .
The grisly discovery was made during work on 72 retirement homes being developed by Brio Retirement Living Holdings on a former farm. There is still a great deal of mystery about the human remains that were unearthed at that site and the delay in providing details of the find has added to the mystery and caused some controversy.
A satellite view of the site where the beheaded skeletons were found, at a farm near a graveyard (top center) near Milton Keynes. ( Google Maps )
According to the MK Citizen, the developers “had to commission an archaeological investigation of the site as a precondition of winning planning permission”. Under British law, any archaeological find has to be brought to the attention of the relevant authorities.
Mysterious Skeletons in Shallow Graves
42 bodies were found and they had all been buried in shallow mass graves. There are some reports that the hands of many of the skeletons had been bound. All the remains have been removed and the graves are now just empty holes. MK Citizen states that with regard to the skeletons “it is not known if there were any artifacts buried with them that could date the time of their death”.
Although Buckingham did once have its own gallows, many hangings and public executions took place in the county town of Aylesbury https://t.co/gQMv18k4ei
— Bucks Herald (@bucks_herald) January 28, 2020
Live Science quotes Robin Stutchey, a local political representative, as saying that the shallowness of the burials and the apparent binding of the hands of the skeletons “suggest they were prisoners of some kind”. They may have been Anglo-Saxon prisoners.
The BBC quotes local historian Ed Grimsdale, as stating that the mass graves date to the Anglo-Saxon era and that “it could be one of the biggest finds of its kind”. He suspects that the graves belonged to captives executed during the 7th to 11th centuries AD.
Were the Skeletons Executed Prisoners?
The remains could also be those of prisoners killed during the English Civil War (1642-1651). This area of England was something of a battleground in the war between the Royalists and Parliamentarians. There are many recorded instances of both sides refusing to give quarter and killing those who had surrendered or been captured.
Battle between the Parliamentarian army and the Royalist army during the English Civil War. (The Illusional Ministry / Public Domain )
No one knows for certain who was buried in the mass grave. This is because of the paucity of information available from the archaeological contractors hired by the developers about the skeletons found on the former farmland. But it is believed that the developers have received an archaeological report on the finds.
Controversy Over the Skeletons
However, it seems that this has not been published or provided to the relevant agency , which has many people worried. A representative of the Bucks County Archaeological Service has stated that they “have not seen the report although they are aware of the discovery” according to MK Citizen .
This report should “include descriptions of any artifacts found in the graves as well as the skeletons genders, ages, and details of how they died” according to Live Science . This information could help to determine the age of the dead, how they died, and what era lived in. It could answer the question if they died during the Anglo-Saxon Age or during the English Civil War .
Bayeux Tapestry of Anglo-Saxon Age battle. (Myrabella / Public Domain )
The local council hopes to receive the archaeological reports soon. Bill Chapple, a member of the local council, is reported by the BBC as saying that “we look forward to sharing the results once we have them”.
However, others are not so patient and are suspicious of the delay. The Sun quotes councilor Stuchbury as saying that “this find is of great historical significance to Buckinghamshire and it should not be hushed up”. This report of the archaeological contractors, it is hoped, will allay local concerns and also resolve the mystery of the mass grave .
As of September 2021, Robin Stuchbury was still calling for at least an interim report to gain some “clarification of what took place and in what date period.” Stuchbury said, “I understand that some of the investigations have been halted due to financial issues between the developer and Network Archaeology, which have been ongoing for some considerable time, and if this is the case what action can be taken by the Council to bring this to a quick resolution?”
The wait continues.
Top image: Around 40 beheaded skeletons have recently been found in a late Roman cemetery in Buckinghamshire, England. Source: HS2
By Ed Whelan
Updated on February 5, 2022.