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Decapitated skeletons found at Roman burial ground in Great Whelnetham



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Archaeologists have unearthed a rare collection of decapitated skeletons during an excavation of a Roman burial ground in West Suffolk.

The discovery was made during a dig in Great Whelnetham ahead of a development by Havebury Housing Partnership.

Of the 52 skeletons found, 17 were decapitated with the head placed by or between their legs or feet.

A decapitated Roman burial with the head placed between the feet, and a second human skull possibly from an adjacent grave. Picture: Archaeological Solutions. (6386375)
A decapitated Roman burial with the head placed between the feet, and a second human skull possibly from an adjacent grave. Picture: Archaeological Solutions. (6386375)

Archaeologist Andy Peachey said such a find was ‘really quite rare’ and knew of only five or six other such sites in the country.

“We anticipate this provides a valuable insight into Roman burial tradition,” he said.

The burial site appears to date from the 4th Century and the decapitated bodies include men, women and ‘unusually’ one child.

Mr Peachey, from Bury St Edmunds-based Archaeological Solutions which conducted the dig, said rather than evidence of executions, ‘the truth is likely a deeper connection to Roman belief systems and funerary rites, potentially within a small section of society’.

“This appears to be a careful funeral rite that may be associated with a particular group within the local population, possibly associated with a belief system (cult) or a practice that came with a group moved into the area, possibly a labour force or even slaves from an estate elsewhere in the Roman empire,” he said.

“The incisions through the neck were post-mortem and were neatly placed just behind the jaw.

“An execution would cut lower through the neck and with violent force, and this is not present anywhere.”

During the excavations, items of Roman pottery were also found in a large boundary ditch.

These included several glossy red Samian ware dishes imported from Gaul and colour-coated beakers decorated with running stags produced at Colchester.

The ditch may have run parallel to a road.

Havebury Housing is building six shared ownership homes at Fentons Farm in Great Whelnetham.

Due to be completed in July, the new development is to be called Swanwood.

Scott Bailey, Havebury’s director of development, said: “Archaeological Solutions is now conducting a detailed analysis of the Roman occupants and other artefacts found.

“This will help the experts to interpret the Roman belief systems, while they will be able to reflect on how this burial site relates to others across England.”

A report will be produced in due course and the artefacts given to Suffolk County Council’s Archaeological Archive.