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Timewatch: The mystery of the headless Romans

Updated Tuesday 11th April 2006

Decapitated corpses in York? Timewatch follows the mystery of the headless Romans.

Skeleton of Roman Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission

The discovery of 30 decapitated Romans found in York has kicked-off an intense archaeological investigation. From the moment they were found archaeologists knew there was something strange about these skeletons. When they were buried their heads were removed and placed in some odd positions; between knees, on chests or down by their feet – why? There are a number of theories to explore.

It turned out that where they were buried was once a huge Roman cemetery. The first theory centred on the idea of a burial site. The Romans were a very superstitious people so burying a person properly was important. Bizarrely, sometimes the dead would have their heads removed to ensure they didn’t return to haunt the living. It was believed removing the head helped the deceased enter the ‘other world’ or ‘afterlife’.

The second theory focussed on the decapitated bodies as being casualties of war. This idea was advanced by further examination of the skeletons which revealed they were all young men - aged 20-40, the right age for warriors. The pottery found in the graves provided a breakthrough. It dated the bodies to the early third century – the time Emperor Septimius Severus was in power. Severus came to Britain in 208AD to wage war on the so called ‘Barbarians’ north of Hadrian’s Wall. He made York his headquarters and for three years ‘Eboracum’ as it was known was the centre of the Roman empire, during which time the town grew and prospered to become a major Roman city.

Severus had been a very successful and ruthless emperor, he’d united the empire and brought the Parthian’s in the east to submission. Though in his 60s he still wanted another victory so he turned his attention on the tribes of Scotland, the Maetae and the Caledonians. To help him in these campaigns he brought his two quarrelsome sons, Caracalla and Geta, both of whom hated each other. He also brought a huge army from all over the empire. The tactics of the Romans was one of scorched earth, Severus was merciless in his treatment of the tribes, killing, burning and destroying everything he could find - it was a brutal campaign.

So are these skeletons the bodies of men who fell in battle? If so, are they Romans or Caledonians? To explain this  new theory, human bone specialists suggest these injuries were not caused by warfare - but was a case of decapitation by execution. So who were they and what happened to them? Historian Anthony Birley reveals these men were the victims of a Roman purge. The Emperor Severus died in York 211AD after three years of fighting the Caledonians. His death sparked a blood feud between his sons Caracalla and Geta, both of whom wanted to be Caesar.

Birley notes that according to the Roman historian Cassius Dio, Caracalla went on a killing spree, executing all those that had opposed him and even key members of the royal household including Severus’s doctors, his chamberlain and the family tutor. The decapitated bodies in York were the first victims of this killing spree.

Geta fled to Rome to rally his own supporters, but when Caracalla finished his killing in York he went after his brother. Caracalla was obsessed with becoming Emperor and murdered his younger brother Geta who died in their mothers’ arms. Caracalla lasted as Emperor for five years before he too was murdered. 

Timewatch brings together an expert team of archaeologists, scientists and historians in a detective story that goes right to the heart of Roman world.

 

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