Hacked Roman legs and jawbones come from brutal Boudiccan battles, say archaeologists

By Ben Miller | 13 July 2014

Phil Crummy, of the Colchester Archaeological Trust, on the 2,000-year-old bones found at a department store

A photo of a brown human bone with teeth protruding from it
Archaeologists in Colchester have produced these handy bone diagrams to annotate the discoveries made at Williams and Griffin, on Colchester High Street© Courtesy Colchester Archaeological Trust
"The dramatic find last week of burnt human bone has turned out to be even more dramatic than we first thought.

Two bones were involved: one part of a jawbone (mandible) and the other the top part of a shinbone (tibia).

They were found in debris from the massive fire which Boudicca and her army started as part of their attempt to drive the Roman army out of Britain.

Although large areas of Boudiccan debris under Colchester have been investigated in the past, this was only the second time human remains had been found in it. The first time was 60 years ago.

When eventually we were able to lift the bones out of the ground and have a close look at them, we had to rub our eyes in disbelieve.

The front part of the shinbone appears to have been chopped off and even part of the jawbone looks as if it has been sliced off too.

Reading archaeological bone in this way can be tricky so the bones will need to be examined by a specialist in ancient human bone. Nevertheless the evidence looks pretty clear even to us.

The cut mark on the shinbone is the most convincing. The bone is a left tibia where the top front left-hand side has been sliced off with a sharp blade.

The blow must have been ferocious and it must have cut through part of the end of the thigh bone (femur) and probably the kneecap (patella) and the fibula (the thin bone alongside the tibia).

The angle of the cut suggests that the leg must have been flexed and that the person who cut it must have been standing in front of the owner of the leg but to his (the owner’s) right.

The mandible is more difficult to interpret. Now that it is out of the ground, we can see that it does indeed have its third molar and that the person was much older than we thought when he died.

What is striking, however, is that the inside edge of the raised part at the back of the jaw is missing. It looks as if this part of the jaw has been sliced off where the bone is quite thin.

But the cut looks rather delicate for a sword blow. It may be that the jawbone simply cracked in the ground and this part became detached. But then, in the light of the chop mark on the leg bone, some kind of deliberate incision, violent or delicate, needs to be considered as a possiblity.

So what to make of this all? The bones lay in burnt building debris which had been shovelled and scooped up and moved as part of the post-fire clearance operations.

Could the cuts in the bones have been the result of this? Are we looking at damage caused by shovels? Perhaps. But a lot of force would have been needed to cut through the tibia, more than might be expected from somebody shovelling up burnt building debris.

And in any case, would shovel blades have been so sharp? The ancient historian Dio Cassius tells us that the British took no prisoners but instead killed their enemies including the women in the most brutal of ways including ‘arson, the cross and the gibbet’. So herein lies the most obvious solution.

Our man fought for his life in one of the buildings which had stood in the immediate area around our site. It was hand-to-hand combat.

He may have been one of the small number of troops in the town there to protect it or he could have been one of the veteran soldiers who had settled in the town after retirement. His teeth suggests somebody getting on in life, so a veteran seems very plausible.

Either way, the man held a shield and presumably a sword. A sword-wielding Briton struck our man’s shield a glancing blow so that the Briton’s sword slid down the left hand side of our man’s shield and caught the edge of  his left knee where it stuck out slightly beyond the shield.

Our man fell to the ground and his body was subsequently consumed in Boudicca’s flames. This could be way too fanciful. We will have to wait to see what the specialist makes of the bones.”

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

A photo of various sections of bone
© Courtesy Colchester Archaeological Trust
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