City of London's grisly decapitated skull mystery solved using state-of-the-art forensic techniques

Archaeologists are thrilled at the blood-thirsty findings

Just over a quarter of a century ago, 39 skulls and a single leg bone were discovered at the London Wall, right in the heart of the City. With state-of-the-art forensic techniques, the mystery of the heads may have been solved – and the blood-thirsty findings have thrilled archaeologists.

The skulls are believed to have been the victims of Roman soldiers’ practice of “headhunting” – removing the body from the head of enemies as trophies – or even gladiatorial combat, the first discovered in the capital.

“This discovery is hugely exciting,” said Rebecca Redfern, from the Centre for Human Bioarchaeology at the Museum of London. “These remains are completely different from everything else we’ve ever found in Roman London. The levels of violence and the types of violence are very different to what we’ve seen.”

When discovered, the archaeologists thought the skulls may have originated from human remains washed out of burial sites by the Walbrook, one of the area’s lost rivers. Dr Redfern said: “Techniques have moved on in the past 30 years, so we often go back to our collection to establish new information.”

These techniques revealed the skulls had almost certainly all been victims of violence and some of the heads had clearly been decapitated. One in the group has even had part of its jawbone sliced off. “The level of violence here exceeds the level needed to kill someone,” Dr Redfern added.

The whereabouts of the rest of the bodies is unknown, and archaeologists said they will next attempt to track where the skulls came from.

The full findings will be published this week in the Journal of Archaeological Science. Dr Redfern said: “It’s utterly, utterly amazing. We don’t have evidence for this type of thing in Roman London.”

The heads, which have been in storage at the Museum of London, are dated to between 120 AD and 160AD. They are believed to have been thrown into an open pit, close to where work and commerce was going on in the city. There is even evidence that a dog gnawed one of the heads.

The Roman practice of headhunting was documented elsewhere around Britain, often in the north of England near the borders of Scotland. Roman soldiers’ tombstones were carved with images of legionaries holding up barbarian heads. Such images are also carved into Trajan’s Column.

Experts believe some of the heads were those of Scottish barbarians. Dr Redfern said: “They could have been brought to London, killed and had their heads put on display.”

Another theory to explain the levels of violence inflicted on the skulls was gladiatorial battles, Dr Redfern said, although she stressed that the findings were not definitive.

“It was predominantly cranial material of men from 26 to 35 years old and they had sustained massive amounts of trauma,” she said.

Some of the skulls had evidence of healed wounds, suggesting violence was a common feature of their lives. While it is likely that gladiators fought in London, no evidence thus far been found.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: On behalf of a successful academy i...

Investigo: Finance Business Partner

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Investigo: My client, a global leader in providing ...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Solicitor - West London

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: WEST LONDON - An excellent new opportunity wit...

Recruitment Genius: Florist Shop Manager

£8 - £10 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A Florist Shop Manager is required to m...

Day In a Page

Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project