Excavations at Knobb’s Farm near Somersham in Cambridgeshire have revealed three small, late Roman cemeteries. More than 50 burials have been uncovered, and an unusually high number of them – far higher than the British average for such sites – appear to have been decapitated and/or buried in a prone (face-down) position.
The three cemeteries were uncovered by archaeologists from the Cambridge Archaeological Unit (CAU) on the south-western edge of a Roman farm settlement that, unfortunately, was largely destroyed by quarrying in the 1960s. Enough structures survived, however, for the team to determine that the site probably originated as a late Iron Age settlement and was abandoned by the 3rd century AD.
Of the 52 human remains recovered from the three cemeteries, 17 of the bodies had been decapitated and 13 were prone, with six burials involving both practices. On average, Roman cemeteries in Britain usually only have one or two decapitated or prone inhumations, making it hard to study larger patterns. The Somersham cemeteries, then, provided a rare opportunity to analyse these types of burial in more detail.
While many of the remains were poorly preserved, hindering a complete osteological analysis, certain trends were observed. In terms of the prone burials, most appeared to be at least middle-aged or older. The same was true for the decapitated burials, and males and females appeared to have been equally represented in both burial types. Additionally, at least three of the individuals showed signs of having been alive at the time of their beheading, possibly killed from behind with a sword. Despite this, these victims appear to have been given traditional burial rites, suggesting that they may have been interred by friends or family.
Overall, the results from these cemeteries, combined with evidence from other Roman sites with similar burials, suggest that the practice of decapitated and prone burials was particularly prominent during the 3rd century AD. While the exact reason for its popularity is still debated, the team from CAU lay out a convincing argument that, based on our knowledge of Roman law, which is known to have become more severe during this time, these were probably the victims of legal execution – possibly associated with the nearby state-run grain supply site at Camp Ground.
The results of the excavation were recently published in the journal Britannia.