Mystery Burials at Dorset

This one is a week or so old, but its interest remains. Assorted news organizations have covered the discovery of a mass burial of possibly 1st-century date during road construction in Dorset. The burial itself is puzzling, however, as the 40-odd skeletons seem to belong to folks who were decapitated, and the skulls were buried in a different location than the trunks. David Score, head of Oxford Archaeology told various news organizations (this is the version from the Guardian‘s coverage), inter alia:

There are lots of different types of burial where skeletons may be aligned along a compass axis or in a crouched position, but to find something like this is just incredible. We’re still working on carefully recording and recovering all of the skeletons, which will be taken back to our offices in Oxford for detailed analysis, and trying to piece together the extraordinary story behind these remains … It’s very early days, but so far, after a visit to the site by our head of burial services, the skulls appear to be predominantly those of young men. At the moment we don’t fully understand how or why the remains have come to be deposited in the pit but it seems highly likely that some kind of catastrophic event such as war, disease or execution has occurred.

With Reuters, Dr. Score went a bit further in his speculations:

Were they fighting amongst themselves? Were they executed by the Romans? Did they die in a battle with the Romans? The exciting scenario for us possibly is that there were skirmishes with the invading Romans and that’s how they ended up chopped up in a pit.

The Reuters coverage also adds some details:

The grave site is close to Maiden Castle — Europe’s largest Iron Age hill fort where local tribes are said to have staged a last stand against the Roman legions after the invasion.

Some historians believe the Romans sacked the site, butchering its population including women and children, before burning it to the ground.

Score said they had counted 45 skulls so far in the 6-meter wide pit, together with a tangle of torsos, arms and legs, More could be found in the coming weeks.

Most of the skulls were those of young men, supporting the theory they could have been killed in battle or executed en masse.

Well it seems to me that the ‘epidemic’ theory is right out, unless it was some mass outbreak of some unknown disease which caused peoples’ heads to fall off. Killed in battle seems a bit odd as well — you don’t get a lot of decapitations in battles outside of Hollywood. Perhaps a post-battle execution is possible, but if these were young, capable warrior types, wouldn’t one expect such folks to be sent back to Rome to fight in the arena? Maybe … maybe not. Similarly, execution by beheading wasn’t generally how Romans treated foreigners (the quick and easy death was preserved for Roman citizens), although perhaps a need to move quickly occasioned these events. Of course, there is an assumption being made here that the Romans would be responsible … that’s due primarily to the proximity of the burials to Maiden Castle, which Sir Mortimer Wheeler had connected long ago to the Roman invasion in 43 B.C., which, in this part of England, was led by the future emperor Vespasian. To judge from English Heritage, the current tendency is to downplay the Roman side of Wheeler’s theories and perhaps the same should be done in this case.

UPDATE (09/21/09): Turns out the burials are Saxon

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