Man in lonely shallow grave buried by community who thought jaw deformities indicated evil, say archaeologists

By Ben Miller | 08 April 2015

Lonely shallow grave and man crushed by caving roof tell archaeologists about Roman Hampshire

A photo of a large human skull against a red background
A reconstruction of the skull of a man found weighed down in a lonely grave at Hampshire's largest Roman villa© Hampshire Cultural Trust
Lower jaw deformities from birth, a missing right hand and foot bones, trepanning to exorcise “bad spirits” and a lonely burial were the lot of a middle-aged Saxon or early medieval man found face down in a shallow grave, say archaeologists investigating skeletons found at a Hampshire Roman villa during the 1960s.

A photo of a large human skull against a red background
The skull of the man found in a shallow grave has a weaker left mandible© Hampshire Cultural Trust
The latter of two male discoveries at Rockbourne, near the town of Fordingbridge on the River Avon, was originally found in 1965.

Analysts believe the community would have buried him in a lonely place and weighed him down with stones after viewing a deformity on the left hand side of his jaw as a sign of his troubles and a potentially evil influence.

“His skull had some interesting pathology,” says Dave Allen, of the Hampshire Cultural Trust, discussing a man who died between 35 and 45 years of age, standing 5ft 7 inches tall.

“His lower jaw was deformed on the left side and his chin pointed.

“The deformity had probably occurred before the bones were fully fused - nine months - and may have resulted from a problematic birth.

“His face must have appeared quite distorted, but tooth wear suggests that he managed to eat quite effectively.

“The left side of the skull has a hole on the frontal bone, just below the temporal ridge.

An overhead photo of a human skull showing a hole in the bone
A hole on the left side of the head was probably cut in an attempt to relieve chronic pain. The edges of the cut have healed© Hampshire Cultural Trust
“This ‘trepanning’, near the muscle attachment for the lower jaw, was presumably done in an attempt to relieve chronic pain or exorcise the bad spirits associated with his deformity.

“He survived the operation and the bone had healed.”

The first skeleton, found in July 1962, was on its back covered by collapsed stone roof tiles and debris. Although ancient Roman law forbade burial or cremation within a town, four children found at Rockbourne, which the Trust believes was occupied from the late Iron Age until around 400 AD, illustrate the exception made for infants.

“When an adult burial is discovered on such a site there is generally a particular reason for it,” says Allen.

“Although the details are far from clear, both of these could be called unusual burials.

“The tile deposit, in particular, was so uniform in this location that it could be argued that the roof had collapsed and crushed the poor individual, although Morley Hewitt, the excavator, suggests that some tiles were beneath him too.

A photo of a long angular piece of roman jewellery against a light blue background
This bronze terminal with a Celtic face was found in the same room of the villa as the earlier male skeleton. It was stolen from a museum display 40 years ago© Hampshire Cultural Trust
“Perhaps we will never know whether this was the case, but it does seem plausible that he was taking shelter in an abandoned building when it fell in on top of him.

“He was in his late 30s or early 40s at the time of death, and stood about 5ft 11 inches tall. As the bones were crushed by the roof material, the skull was lifted using a plaster cast. It was 1976 before this was worked on and the 108 fragments were painstakingly put back together.

“Morley felt that the individual had a long, thin face of a type considered to be Saxon. But whatever his appearance, a fairly immediate post-Roman date seems likely.”

The largest-known villa in the region, Rockbourne once stood at the centre of a large farming estate, and includes bath houses, living quarters, farm buildings and workshops. Its mosaics, section of underfloor heating system and outline of 40 rooms are popular with the public.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

A photo of a skeleton in a rocky brown grave next to an archaeological measuring stick
The face-down burial was found outside Room 3© Hampshire Cultural Trust
A photo of a stone archaeological pit with sections of white mosaic covering the floor
The collapsed roof of limestone tiles© Hampshire Cultural Trust
A photo of a stone archaeological pit with a male skeleton visible next to a ruler stick
The skeleton in Room 14© Hampshire Cultural Trust
A photo of people lifting a skull at a busy outdoor archaeological site during the 1960s
Archaeologists lift the skull during the 1960s© Hampshire Cultural Trust
A black and white overhead photo of a large Roman villa site
An aerial view of Rockbourne during the 1960s, showing the location of the burials© Hampshire Cultural Trust
A photo of people sitting at a busy outdoor archaeological site during the 1960s
© Hampshire Cultural Trust
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But if the individual lived to his 35-40s and had trepanation (which he survived), it can't have been that his appearance was so threatening that the community got rid of him -- during that period, child abandonment would have been unremarkable. The article doesn't indicate the man was in poor condition, so the assumption that the deformity is responsible for the burial may be just that, an assumption.
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