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Mystery over 17 decapitated Roman skeletons ‘executed’ 1,700 years ago in Cambridgeshire

DECAPITATED Roman skeletons dating back 1,700 years have been unearthed at three Roman cemeteries at Knobb’s Farm in Cambridgeshire.

The 17 skeletons are thought to be the remains of British Romans but experts can’t agree on how they came to have their heads chopped off.

17 skeletons were found at the UK site


17 skeletons were found at the UK siteCredit: Dave Webb/Cambridge Archaeological Unit

The cemeteries are actually home to 52 skeletons but only 17 have been decapitated.

The unlucky bunch includes nine men and eight women who are all thought to be over 25-years-old.

A study about them has been published in the journal Britannia.

A lot of the skeletons had their head placed at their feet.

Some scholars think the skeletons belong to criminals who were executed


Some scholars think the skeletons belong to criminals who were executedCredit: Dave Webb/Cambridge Archaeological Unit

Pottery was then places where their head should be.

Some of the bodies were also put stomach first into the graves.

The researchers think the people were killed in the third and fourth centuries for interfering with the Roman military who may have used Knobb’s farm as a supply centre.

Lots of civil wars were happening at the time within the Roman Empire and the death penalty was used to punish all sorts of crimes.

Pottery was also found in some of the graves


Pottery was also found in some of the gravesCredit: Dave Webb/Cambridge Archaeological Unit

It’s thought family and friends were still allowed to bury an executed criminal, which could explain why some of the burials appear carefully carried out and include grave goods.

 The researchers wrote: “During the third and fourth centuries, the penalties available under Roman law grew steadily harsher.

“The number of crimes that carried the death penalty grew from 14 at the start of the third century to around 60 by the death of Constantine in AD 337.”

It’s likely the skeletons belonged to people who weren’t slaves as slaves had no status and wouldn’t have been given such ‘dignified’ burials.

Some experts disagree with the idea that the people were legally executed.

Caroline Humfress, director of the Institute of Legal and Constitutional Research at the University of St. Andrews, told Live Science: “Personally, I think that it is highly unlikely that the executions at Knobb’s farm were anything to do with late Roman legal processes.

“If they have a judicial context, it is more likely to be localized and related to summary executions.”

Other theories suggest this could just be the way some local people wanted to bury their dead.

A brief history of the Roman Empire

Here’s what you need to know…

  • The Roman Empire began shortly after the founding of the Roman Republic in the 6th century BC
  • It reigned for around a thousand years until the fall of the last Western emperor in 476 AD
  • During this time, the Romans ruled over many countries in Europe and parts of Africa and the Middle East
  • At its height, 90 million people lived in the Roman Empire
  • It evolved from a monarchy to a democratic republic to a military dictatorship and then was finally ruled by emperors
  • One of the most well-known Roman leaders is Julius Caesar, famously assassinated in 44BC
  • He is largely credited for his military mind and laying the foundations for the Roman Empire
  • The spread of the Roman Empire into Britain in around 55 BC has had a lasting impact on our lives today
  • Latin, straight roads, underfloor heating and the spread of Christianity are all attributed to the Romans
Archaeologists find 2,000-year-old ‘almost intact’ Roman chariot near the ancient city of Pompeii

In other news, a mysterious tomb just a few miles from Dublin is older than the Pyramids of Giza and continues to baffle scientists.

The first humans to set foot on the North American continent could have arrived 30,000 years ago, according to new evidence.

And, the mystery surrounding the age of the Cerne Abbas Giant may have finally been solved.

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