Excavations reveal evidence of judicial execution by decapitation during Roman period

Archaeologists excavating between 2001 and 2010 at Knobbs Farm Quarry in Somersham, England, uncovered three late Roman cemeteries at the edge of a farming settlement, that has evidence of judicial executions using decapitation.

The research recently published in Britannia (Roman Journal of Archaeology) was undertaken by Cambridge Archaeology Unit and Dr Isabel Lisboa of Archaeologica Ltd, on behalf of Tarmac, a CRH company that funded the work.

- Advertisement -

The three cemeteries date to around the 3rd century AD, and total 52 burials mainly placed in an extended position, whilst 13 were prone, and 17 showing indications of decapitation. During the Roman period, decapitation was a standard method of execution referred to frequently in historical text and Roman legal documents.

Three of the decapitated skeletons show cut marks that was likely caused by a sword (decollatio), whilst osteological evidence implies that they were still alive when killed. One of the female skeletons has evidence of mutilation, which in reported Roman sources is paralleled by the destruction of the head or face of executed criminals.

Image Credit : Cambridge Archaeology Unit

The study suggests that Knobbs Farm Quarry has an exceptionally high proportion of decapitated bodies and prone burials (33 per cent and 25 per cent) when compared with burial grounds locally and across Roman Britain.

One explanation is the proximity to several farming settlements known as ‘Fen Roman Villages’ that likely supplied the military. The inhabitants would presumably have been under particular scrutiny, and malfeasance would have been treated harshly.

- Advertisement -

The late date of the executions: the rise in decapitations in Britain also coincided with increasing severity in Roman law. The number of crimes that carried the death penalty more than doubled in the third century and quadrupled in the fourth century. Read full paper

Header Image Credit : Dave Webb, Cambridge Archaeological Unit



- Advertisement -
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 8,000 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.

Mobile Application


Related Articles

Waters at Roman Bath may have super healing properties

A new study, published in the Microbe journal, has uncovered a diverse array of microorganisms in the geothermal waters at Roman Bath that may have super healing properties.

9,000-year-old Neolithic stone mask unveiled

A rare stone mask from the Neolithic period has been unveiled for the first time by the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Archaeologists recover two medieval grave slabs from submerged shipwreck

Underwater archaeologists from Bournemouth University have recovered two medieval grave slabs from a shipwreck off the coast of Dorset, England.

Study confirms palace of King Ghezo was site of voodoo blood rituals

A study, published in the journal Proteomics, presents new evidence to suggest that voodoo blood rituals were performed at the palace of King Ghezo.

Archaeologists search for home of infamous Tower of London prisoner

A team of archaeologists are searching for the home of Sir Arthur Haselrig, a leader of the Parliamentary opposition to Charles I, and whose attempted arrest sparked the English Civil War.

Tartessian plaque depicting warrior scenes found near Guareña

Archaeologists from the Institute of Archaeology of Mérida (IAM) and the CSIC have uncovered a slate plaque depicting warrior scenes at the Casas del Turuñuelo archaeological site.

Archaeologists find a necropolis of stillborn babies

Excavations by the National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (Inrap) have unearthed a necropolis for stillborn and young children in the historic centre of Auxerre, France.

Researchers find historic wreck of the USS “Hit ‘em HARDER”

The Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) has confirmed the discovery of the USS Harder (SS 257), an historic US submarine from WWII.