The Headless Romans of York

I've decided to start a new and hopefully recurring blog post - not as exciting as Taphonomy Thursdays from my dissertation data collection and a whole lot more egotistical - reviews of articles that cite my work.

"The 'Headless Romans': multi-isotope investigation of an unusual burial ground from Roman Britain" by Gundula Muldner, Carolyn Chenery, and Hella Eckardt of the Department of Archaeology at the University of Reading was recently accepted by the Journal of Archaeological Science. (UPDATE - 10/28/10, National Geographic took notice of this article and interviewed the first author about it.)

It represents one of the first scientific publications of the cemetery whose unusual burial population has been covered a few times over the years by the mainstream media. In the midst of a large 2nd-4th century cemetery in York (a city known to the Romans as Eboracum) were found 80 inhumation burials and 16 cremations. Osteological analysis showed that all of the individuals whose sex could be confidently assessed were male. Further, at least 46 of the 80 inhumed men had been decapitated, with their heads placed on their torsos or between their knees. In the Roman world, decapitation could be used as punishment, but it isn't known if that was the case here or if this was some sort of ritual act. (Also interesting is that one of the individuals was found with heavy iron rings around his legs, suggesting he was shackled - possibly as a prisoner or as a slave.)

The researchers did strontium and oxygen isotope analysis on the fourth premolar of 18 of these skeletons (12 of which had been decapitated), as well as carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis from the ribs of a much larger sample. They also analyzed the collagen in the premolar roots of the same 18 individuals, thus obtaining C/N information from both their bones and their teeth, giving them an idea of what these 18 people ate between ages 7-13 (formation of the fourth premolar) and the last few years before death.

One of the important contributions of this article is the discussion of combining isotope analyses. Taken independently, there were 7 people who were nonlocal based on Sr and 2 based on O. Of the people whose Sr and O cannot exclude them as locals, though, three have C or N values that are dramatically different from the overall population. One individual has a higher C value than average, indicating a diet with a significant contribution of C4 foods; one has a lower C value, indicating an exclusively C3 diet; and one has a very high N value, probably as a result of greater consumption of seafood than average. I'm actually not entirely clear how these numbers add up since I didn't completely pore through the attached data tables, but based on the combination of the isotopes, the authors found that 13 out of the 18 people sampled came from geographical areas inconsistent with the York area of England. (This isn't necessarily a criticism; I know first-hand how hard it is to juggle samples of different sizes that do not completely overlap. They do seem to have done Sr/O and C/N of both bone and dentine from 11 individuals, though.)

The geographical origins of the nonlocals that these researchers found were quite diverse. Interestingly, there seems to be no correlation between being nonlocal and having been decapitated. Considering the press that Inca burials and mummies have gotten over the years based on the finding that many of the sacrificed were nonlocals (a fact renewed this week by another in-press JAS article), I suppose I was surprised that these headless people were not necessarily foreigners. Locals and nonlocals were equally likely to have been decapitated. Thus it would seem that, if this represents a particular burial ritual, it was not one that was linked to ethnicity or geographical origins. Nor does it seem that, if this represents a particular punishment, that nonlocals were more likely to be executed than locals. Even with all the information now available on these men, it's still unclear who they were, why they died, or why they were buried where they were and, especially, in the way they were.

Although the presentation of data from multiple isotope systems is complicated and can be cumbersome, this article does an excellent job of demonstrating the importance of balancing the information obtained from one isotope with data from one or more additional isotopes. In the Roman period in particular, the circulation of people, objects, animals, water, and food significantly complicates isotope analysis in a way that researchers in the New World don't usually see. It has become increasingly clear through this article (and the previous work of these researchers) that multiple isotope analysis is now a necessity in understanding the bodies of people who lived in the Roman Empire. I discovered this fact as well with my own dissertation research. Strontium analysis alone gave me perhaps half a dozen immigrants out of my 100+ individuals, meaning about 5% of the population was nonlocal. The combination of Sr and O, though, (which I had to do on a subset of people owing to funding constraints) gave me a percentage of around 33% for the nonlocal population. The difference when the isotope systems were combined was amazing. I also added C/N on some of the people, and there was at least one person whose C value was so high it prompted a colleague at a conference to comment that if he didn't know better, he would have said the guy was eating a lot of corn.

I look forward to seeing more information come out about these so-called headless Romans. The authors note that they found at least one individual who appears to have changed diet between childhood (7-13 years old) and adulthood, but they don't seem to have reported on any other dietary changes in either the locals or the nonlocals.

Where my work is cited: The authors cite an article (on which I am a coauthor) about lead isotope analysis of skeletons from Britain and a few of mine from Rome. They note that one of the men from this cemetery in York, a middle-aged male who was not decapitated, had a Pb isotope signature indicating he was likely nonlocal. The article they cite on lead is forthcoming in the volume Roman Diasporas: Archaeological Approaches to Mobility and Diversity in the Roman Empire, JRA Supplement 78, as "'Gleaming, white and deadly': the use of lead to track human exposure and geographic origins in the Roman period in Britain," by J. Montgomery, J. Evans, S. Chenery, V. Pashley, and K. Killgrove.


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