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Skullduggery in Roman London?

Geoff Marsh & Barbara West

Ever since the early 19th century, excavations in the Walbrook Valley have produced large numbers of human skulls, of which 48 were examined for the purposes of this report. By far the majority are of young to middle-aged adult males, and in every case the lower jaw (mandible) is missing. This, with other factors, suggests that the victims were decapitated and their heads exposed for several months before final deposition in the Walbrook stream.

Such stratigraphic information as exists suggests a date in the late 1st century AD, and so it has been postulated that the skulls are of Londoners massacred during the Boudican revolt of AD 60-1. However, in the absence of ante-mortem injuries – and because the skulls appear to be of selected individuals rather than of a random sample of the civilian population – Celtic religious practices offer a more likely explanation. The Celtic practice of head-hunting is well attested, as is the cult of the head more generally: these skulls might, for example, be offerings to the stream, made by people of Celtic extraction living on the outskirts of the Roman settlement.

[Transactions 32 (1981), pp 86 – 102; abstract by Francis Grew, 12-Dec-1997]

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