“Whence this Severance of the Head?”
: The Osteology and Archaeology of Human Decapitation in Britain

  • Katie Tucker

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Decapitation burials (burials in which the cranium and mandible are displaced from correct anatomical position and replaced elsewhere in the grave) are a relatively common minority burial practice in Romano-British cemeteries. They have usually been ascribed to a post-mortem funerary ritual with various different motives being postulated. However, these interpretations seem to have largely been based on assumption rather than evidence from the archaeological context or the human remains, only small numbers of which have been subjected to detailed skeletal analysis. Decapitated burials are also found in the early medieval period, and, conversely, these are normally concluded to be the victims of judicial execution, an interpretation that is only very rarely used when discussing Romano-British examples.

This thesis examines the archaeological and osteological data from a large sample of Romano-British decapitated burials and compares them with the wider Romano-British cemetery population, in order to better understand the differences between decapitated individuals and the rest of the population, in terms of burial practice, demographics, and ante-mortem health status. The evidence for decapitation in the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages, early medieval, medieval and post-medieval periods was also examined, with the analysis of samples of decapitated individuals being undertaken where possible, in order to provide comparanda for the Romano-British examples, and assess whether there is any evidence for continuity in the practice between the periods.

The thesis focuses particularly on the evidence for decapitation-related peri-mortem trauma, and this data is used to identify and describe a number of different types of decapitation amongst the samples of individuals. The complete body of evidence is then used to discuss the feasibility of each of the different interpretations previously suggested for the practice of decapitation, with the intention that it can be used to inform any future discussion of such burials.

“Whence this severance of the head?” is quoted from Royce (1883: 77)
Date of Award21 Mar 2012
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Winchester

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