A Mutilated Human Skull from Roman St Albans, Hertfordshire, England

By Mays, Simon; Steele, James | Antiquity, March 1996 | Go to article overview

A Mutilated Human Skull from Roman St Albans, Hertfordshire, England


Mays, Simon, Steele, James, Antiquity


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.

The skull [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

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. …

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