Monday, May 4, 2020

Isotope Analysis and the Case of the Headless Romans

Today, in my Forensic Archaeology and Anthropology class, we studied the use of isotope analysis as a method to identify geographic origins and dietary patterns in archaeologically recovered human remains. I read, with particular interest, the isotope analysis report of the "Headless Romans" found in the cemetery just outside of York. I assumed before reading the report that the exclusively male burials with almost 50% decapitated individuals and many remains displaying antemortem trauma, would have been consistent with a military group burial. This was considered plausible by researchers. But, the burials were not separated by time period and they were found to be not due to a single incident, so no conclusions about a particular engagement or period of unrest could really be drawn from the group of remains as a whole. I actually expected the study's outliers to be non-Briton individuals and this was confirmed. These individuals would have probably been officers, usually from Roman aristocratic families, that were fulfilling the military service required by the Cursus Honorum. But I was a bit disappointed that more understanding could not be shed on the high percentage of decapitations. Researchers pointed out that if the decapitations were a result of improper actions, they should have constituted less than 10% of the group, not almost 50%. Early conclusions pointed to a “mass execution” of members of the Imperial Court in the turbulent aftermath of Septimius Severus’ death in 211 CE (as explored in the video below). But that would not account for the wide spread of time between deaths. It is my understanding that the taking of heads as battle trophies was a Celtic tradition. So, the group burials, (some grave pits contained up to four bodies each) may have been the aftermath of a punitive operation against local war bands where heads that had been taken were repatriated then buried with their respective torsos. But that would have also probably required most of the individuals to have been interred during roughly the same period. Instead, the 80 bodies represented burials across two to three centuries. Another theory proposed they were gladiator burials based on possible similarities in trauma patterns with known gladiators and especially the toothmarks of a large carnivore, possibly a bear, lion or tiger, found on one of the skeletons. But, researchers pointed out that there appears to be no evidence that decapitations were part of the ritual used for dispatching defeated gladiators. More studies of the remains are ongoing so maybe there will be better clarification later.

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