Deconstructing Decapitation in Late Roman Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire, UK

Abstract

The Roman conquest in Britain (AD 43) led to significant changes in indigenous settlements and agricultural systems, population diversity, social organization, economic activities, and funerary traditions. Archaeological investigations of burials from the first to fifth centuries AD in Britain have revealed a complex array of burial treatments and attitudes toward the dead, including decapitation burials, which are the most common form of differential burial represented in this period. Traditional interpretations of these burials have included infanticide, punitive execution, trophy taking, fear of the dead, and veneration practices. This project investigates a sample of decapitation burials from Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire dating to the Late Roman Period (3rd-5th c. AD) using quantitative and qualitative comparisons of skeletal remains, grave goods and other associated materials. The multi-scalar analysis of bioarchaeological and mortuary treatments demonstrated that no specific variable automatically distinguished a decapitated individual as an outlier or social deviant, reinforcing the need for the systematic application of contextual analysis, including osteological profiles, in our methodological assessments of lived experiences and the expression of identity in Late Romano-British society. This project contributes to the growing cross-disciplinary literature on how ancient populations utilized the body as an instrument in the performance of ritual violence, allowing a more nuanced interpretation of the culturally constructed body as a salient material object category in the Roman Iron Age

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