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A mutilated human skull from Roman St Albans, Hertfordshire, England.

A skull excavated from a 2nd-cemetery AD pit in the Roman city of St Albans shows evidence for violent injury and displays cut-marks which seem to indicate deliberate defleshing. The find appears to be without close parallel in Roman Britain.

The site

Excavations at Folly Lane, St Albans, between September 1991 and March 1992 revealed features of Romano-British date, including a temple, and cremation and inhumation burials (Niblett 1992; forthcoming; Mays & Steele 1995). The subject of this note is a human skull deposited in a 2nd-century AD pit.

The pit

The geology at the site is clay with flints overlying chalk. The pit in which the skull was found was 3-4 m deep and its base just cut the natural chalk. The skull was placed upright at the bottom and was covered by a layer of clay, within which were also found a burial of a dog less than 6 months old and an iron knife. Overlying this material, and apparently unrelated to it, was a large quantity of butchery waste.


Most of the vault, except the left temporal bone and the lower part of the occipital, is present. The facial skeleton is fairly complete, although fragmentary, but the mandible is missing. The bone is well-preserved, the surfaces showing negligible soil erosion.

Cranial morphology (Brothwell 1981) indicates male sex. Dental eruption and development (White 1991: figure 16.2) suggest an age at death of about 15-18 years; the open skull sutures and light dental wear are consistent with this.

The skull shows both perforating injuries and cut-marks.

Perforating injuries

A hole about 1 cm in diameter, situated on the left lambdoid suture [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED], shows attached, inward-pointing bone fragments at its margin. The internal edges of the hole [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 3 OMITTED] are bevelled, so that its diameter on the inner surface of the skull is greater than it is externally. The edges of the hole, which show no signs of healing, present a weathered appearance, indicating that the lesion is of ancient rather than recent origin. The perforation appears to have resulted from a blow. The greater diameter of the hole internally indicates that the blow was to the outer surface of the skull. The presence of inward-directed adherent fragments at its margin indicates that the injury was sustained whilst the bone was living, or at least reasonably fresh and retaining its slight elasticity (Ortner & Putschar 1985).

A further three holes in the left side of the skull [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 4 OMITTED] show common features with the one just described. One (the upper one in [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 & 3 OMITTED]) is of similar size and is situated adjacent to that discussed above. Another small hole lies on the left parietal, and a larger one is present on the left side of the frontal bone. Like the first perforation, these three have bevelled edges so that their internal diameters are larger than on the skull's outer surface. Their edges are weathered and show no signs of healing. Unlike the first, however, they lack inward-pointing bone fragments at their margins. From the features which they do share with the first lesion described, it seems reasonable to infer that they too represent perimortal injuries caused by blows to the skull. (Even perimortal cranial injuries sometimes lack inward-directed fragments attached to their margins: Ortner & Putschar 1985.)

Among the bone fragments from this skull is a 2-cm diameter piece of skull vault with a marked indentation on its outer surface [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 5 OMITTED]. The broken edges of the outer table show weathering, indicating that this fragment broke away from the rest of the skull in antiquity. The margins of the fragment are bevelled so that its diameter is smallest externally. The inner table is missing. The exposed diploe is splintered, but the fragments still adhere to one another. These features suggest that this fragment sustained a blow to its outer surface whilst the bone was living or at least still fresh. It seems possible that it was detached by a blow which caused one of the perforations. The fragment is too large to fit any of the perforations described above, except for that on the frontal bone; recent damage to this area of the skull prevents confirmation that it does indeed come from here. If this fragment was completely detached from the skull in antiquity it is surprising that it was found with it on excavation. Perhaps it remained attached by remnants of soft tissue (although there is evidence for deliberate removal of flesh from the skull - see below), or it may have been attached by the inner table and inner parts of the diploe which are now missing.


There are many - at least 90 - fine cut marks on the outer surface of the cranial vault, concentrated mainly on the parietal bones and the right temporal bone [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 4 & 6 OMITTED]. The cut-marks show no consistent orientation and often criss-cross one another. Impressions of the cut-marked areas were examined under a scanning electron microscope, using low magnification in backscattered electron mode. Most cut-marks have V- or U-shaped profiles, and parallel longitudinal striations are often observable within the main groove [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 7 OMITTED]. These cuts appear to have been made by a fine-bladed knife. A few cuts are broader and less straight, with more irregular profiles [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 6 & 8 OMITTED]. These appear to have been made with a less sharp blade, whether a different instrument, or simply a blunter part of the blade which produced the finer cuts, is uncertain.

Under the scanning electron microscope, many fine striations not apparent to the naked eye are revealed. These are not distributed over the entire vault, but are concentrated in the dense area of cut-marks on the left parietal bone [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 8 OMITTED]. Groups of these fine striations appear to run approximately parallel with one another [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 8 OMITTED]. Although fine striations can be produced on bone by post-depositional erosion, the localization of these marks in the area which also shows many cut-marks argues for an anthropogenic rather than post-depositional origin. We interpret them as resulting from the scraping of a blade across the skull surface.

No cut-marks cross perforations, so it is impossible to determine whether the cuts or the blows were inflicted first.


Two possible interpretations of the cut-marks suggest themselves. One is that their purpose was scalping, the other is that their aim was de-fleshing the skull. The distinction is important; in the first the removed scalp is the valued object, in the latter the skull itself.

Studies using skeletal remains from North America (Olsen & Shipman 1994; Allen et al. 1985; Owsley et al. 1994; Steinbock 1976) suggest that when the objective is scalping, cut-marks on the bone are fairly horizontal in orientation, short, straight or slightly curved, and are usually situated around the crown of the head. By contrast, the marks made by de-fleshing are more random in orientation, and there are often more cuts (Owsley et al. 1994; Olsen & Shipman 1994). On this basis, the marks on the Folly Lane skull seem more characteristic of de-fleshing than of scalping. If we are correct in interpreting the fine striations visible microscopically as due to scraping of a blade across the skull, then they too would tend to argue for de-fleshing rather than scalping. However, it is worth noting that in de-fleshed burials from North America, cuts are frequently found on the facial bones, as flesh here is often difficult to remove; cut-marks are not present on the surviving facial bones of the Folly Lane skull.

The cut-marks on the Folly Lane skull suggest de-fleshing, the skull itself being the valued object. The individual concerned may have been killed by the blows which caused the four perforations in the skull vault, or they may have been inflicted after death.

All the maxillary anterior teeth, save the broken stump of the root of one canine, have fallen from their sockets after death. Despite careful excavation, no trace of them was found in the pit so they must have fallen from the skull before it was buried. The skull was also missing the mandible when it was placed in the pit. Although the left mandibular fossa is missing, the right is present; it shows no cut-marks or other signs of forcible removal of the lower jaw. That the mandible was missing, but apparently not forcibly removed, suggests that when the skull was placed in the pit the facial area was free of soft tissue. The missing anterior maxillary teeth indicate an interval between death and burial sufficient for the periodontal ligament and other supporting soft tissues to rot, releasing the teeth from their sockets. Perhaps the skull was exposed, after having been partially de-fleshed, for sufficient time for the mandible and anterior maxillary teeth to fall away. The Roman temple at Folly Lane is of 2nd-3rd-century date, so is broadly contemporary with the skull. Perhaps the skull was displayed for ritual purposes within the temple before being placed in the pit.

The skull lacks the area around the foramen magnum. None of the missing fragments from this area were found in the pit and the weathered appearance of the broken edges confirms that this part must have broken away in antiquity. Damage to this area could have been caused by mounting the skull on a staff or pole, but there is no further evidence for this.

Human skulls, or substantial parts thereof, have been found as deliberate deposits in pits from a number of Romano-British and pre-Roman Iron Age sites (Marsh & West 1981: appendix 2). There is some evidence for a connection between shrines or temples and human heads; a number of pre-Roman shrines in southern Gaul show evidence for display of human skulls (Green 1986: 29-30). In Britain, parts of two skulls were found built into the stone wall of a temple at Cosgrove, Northamptonshire. The stone temple replaced an earlier timber shrine; the excavator (Quinnell 1991) suggests that the skulls may have functioned as cult objects in the shrine before being used as foundation deposits when the temple was built.

Is there a connection between the Folly Lane skull and the well-known Romano-British phenomenon of decapitated burials? In most decapitated burials the severed head is placed in the grave with the rest of the body. although in a few cases the head does not appear to have been deposited in the grave (Philpott 1991). There are no decapitated burials at Folly Lane, and in any event Philpott (1991), reviewing the British evidence, states that there are very few examples of decapitated burials which can be securely dated earlier than the 4th century AD; a link between the Folly Lane skull and the phenomenon of the decapitated burials is unlikely.

Close contemporaneous parallels for the mutilations on the Folly Lane skull are difficult to find, either in Britain or in Continental northern Europe (Anger & Diek 1978). To our knowledge, the only other instance where knife-marks were found on a Romano-British skull was on a specimen from Wroxeter. Here a fragment of human frontal bone was recovered from a 3rd-4th-century AD pit; it showed a series of transverse knife-marks just above the brow ridge (Barker 1981). The location and orientation of these cut-marks are quite different from those observed in the Folly Lane example, and would seem to indicate scalping (the interpretation made by Barker 1981), rather than de-fleshing.

Acknowledgements. Thanks are due to Jill Cook for her comments on the cut-marks. Thanks are also due to Colin Slack for making the impressions of the cut-marked parts of skull vault, and to Malcolm Ward for assistance with the S.E.M. We are grateful to Sebastian Payne for his comments on an earlier draft of this article and to Rosalind Niblett for permission to publish the Folly Lane specimen. Background data on the site were supplied by Rosalind Niblett and information on the animal bones found in the pit was supplied by Alison Locker. The photographs were taken by Jeremy Bailey.


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Forthcoming. The 1991-92 excavations at Folly Lane, St Albans.

OLSEN, S.L. & P. SHIPMAN. 1994. Cutmarks and perimortem treatment of skeletal remains on the Northern Plains, in Owsley & Jantz (ed.): 377-87.

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Author:Mays, Simon; Steele, James
Date:Mar 1, 1996
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