Archeologists discover Roman-era cemetery filled with decapitated skeletons, likely criminals

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It can be an exciting experience unearthing the past, learning and discovering about other ways of life and people that are long gone. Other times, it can be a grisly reminder that life isn’t always pretty, and certainly wasn’t in the past either.

When a high-speed rail HS2 project was worked on at Fleet Marston, near Aylesbury, about an hour to the northwest of London, the workers made a shocking discovery: a bunch of headless skeletons in a number of graves. The findings were soon analyzed, and it turned out that these decapitated skeletons belonged to criminals who died more than 2,000 years ago in Roman Britannia.

The site was then turned over to archaeologists and the excavation continued. Eventually, the ruins of a Roman village were discovered, full of various artifacts like ancient coins and even standard 6-sided dice made out of lead. The bodies of more than 400 people were found, with approximately 10 percent of the bodies missing their heads, though some were found with their skulls placed between their legs or at their feet, according to the HS2 project website.

Historians believe that this may have been a form of burial reserved for criminals or other shunned pariahs, but there is also the theory that this may have been an unusual but ordinary type of funeral rite that has been well-documented elsewhere.

“One interpretation of this burial practice is that it could be the burial of criminals or a type of outcast, although decapitation is well-known elsewhere and appears to have been a normal, albeit marginal, burial rite during the late Roman period,” said the HS2 project in a statement this weekend.

“All human remains uncovered will be treated with dignity, care and respect and our discoveries will be shared with the community,” added Helen Wass, HS2 Ltd’s head of heritage.

Researchers are hoping to uncover more about Britain’s Roman era from the village, and theorize that the hundreds of coins found indicate that this was once a stopping point for trade, due to its location along a long-defunct former road that connected the Roman cities of Verulamium and Corinium Dobunnorum, modern-day St. Albans and Cirencester, respectively.

The HS2 rail project is a network of high-speed rail lines planned to cut across the British countryside and connect all significant cities with each other by means of fast and affordable rail transportation. The project has unearthed approximately 100 archaeological sites from Britain’s past since 2018, many from the Roman era, which lasted in Britain from Caesar’s initial invasion in 55 BC to the final Roman withdrawal in 410 AD.

Due to these recurring historical discoveries, HS2 has a full heritage division and has over 50 archaeologists conducting the excavation at the Fleet Marston site. Even London itself still has a vast underground network of ruins of old Roman Londinium, and there is plenty of reason to believe other exciting historical discoveries await those patient enough and meticulous enough to look for them.


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