Archaeologists have been working along a stretch of highway that’s being upgraded in the English countryside. What’s more, they’ve been making some fascinating finds along the route of the road. And none has been more engrossing than a trio of human skeletons from Roman times that are as gruesomely shocking as they are intriguing.
Highways England is the U.K. government agency that’s responsible for maintaining and upgrading the country’s major roads and freeways. And one of its biggest current projects is a five-year scheme to upgrade the A14 road between the cities of Cambridge and Huntingdon. The construction scheme covers around 21 miles of roadway and will cost up to $2.4 billion to complete.
Operating alongside the construction workers is a team of around 250 archaeologists managed by a company called MOLA Headland Infrastructure. And there is a rich trove of artifacts just waiting to be found at various sites along the route. These relics date from the hunter-gatherer era of 6,000 years ago right up to the time of World War II.
Finds along the route of the A14 at some 40 dig sites have included traces of three Neolithic standing stone circles called henges, an Anglo-Saxon flute carved from bone and 40 kilns used for pottery making, the latter of which date from Roman times. And as well as unearthing these items, the archaeologists have uncovered some 25 sites of human settlement.
Other bonanzas have included a rare Roman pendant, made from jet, which has been dated to between the late 2nd and 4th century AD. This piece of jewelry is in the form of Medusa’s head and could have belonged to Anglo-Saxons – who may have regarded it as some sort of talisman.
Yet another exciting find for the team was a prehistoric Stone Age axe head skillfully fashioned from flint. The archaeologists speculated that the axe might have had a ritualistic significance. But the most gruesome discovery of this extensive archaeology project was among one of the seven dig sites that had human remains in them.
This particular site contained three well-preserved skeletons – two of them buried together and the third apparently thrown down a nearby well. The two skeletons interred together are set at right angles to each other. But this isn’t the only thing that is striking about the pair.
What is macabre in the extreme is the fact that both male skeletons had had their legs chopped off at the knee. The dismembered limbs had then been arranged at the shoulders of the bodies. So what on Earth would have made the people who buried these men’s bodies do that? And were the two individuals actually dead when they were put underground – and before their legs were cut off?
It seems that the men’s skulls had also been bashed in, although – similarly – whether this happened before or after death is unclear. Speaking to The Guardian, Cambridge County Council senior archaeologist Kasia Gdaniec speculated about the amputated legs. “Was it to keep them in their graves and stop them from running away?” she speculated. “Or had they tried to run away, and was this a punishment – and a warning to everyone else not even to think of it?”
Jonathan House, one of the archaeologists from the Mola Headland Infrastructure team, said, “Somebody really, really didn’t like these guys. We found very few human remains, and then this pair and the poor guy over there.” The “poor guy over there” was another skeleton about 50 yards away from the other two.
This third skeleton had also been horribly mutilated. It had been cut right through at the waist, and only the upper half of the body remained. There was no sign of the pelvis or legs – and this single half-body was found down a Roman well lined with timber supports. The other two bodies weren’t in a proper grave, either; it seems that they had been buried in an old gravel pit that was used as a trash site.
Gdaniec, for one, strongly feels the unsettlingly baleful ambience of this site, which dates from the end of the Roman era or early in the Saxon age around 1,500 years ago. “People talk about the archaeology of conquest, but I have never felt it as strongly as here,” she told The Guardian.
“The Romans arrive, the people who were here are completely subjugated, [and] everything changes and is never the same again. We are not seeing trade and peaceful co-existence here; we are seeing enslavement,” Gdaniec added.
In fact, originally this site was surrounded by a rather half-hearted ditch, but this all changed when the Romans arrived. The Roman conquerors dug a massive trench over six feet deep and almost ten feet wide around the site, using the waste material to create a large rampart. Yet despite the enormous amount of labor that this would have entailed, the site bears no indication that substantial permanent buildings had been erected. The archaeologists speculate that it may have been no more than a staging camp for Roman legionaries marching north.
Those legions may well have been heading for Hadrian’s Wall – the farthest north that the Roman Empire stretched. This enormous stone wall, regularly punctuated by forts and guard posts, stretched right across Britain from one coast to another. Its line is close to what is the modern border between England and Scotland.
Now, once the Romans had their strongly defended enclosure, they used the land within the ditch for agriculture, growing crops such as beans, wheat and root vegetables. A number of kilns were also found at the site of the men’s tomb. Some are so small that the archaeologists jokingly wondered if they were for firing egg cups. Others, though, were of a much more impressive size.
The archaeologists have also discovered some other far less grisly finds at the A14 dig. We’ve already seen the bone flute and the Medusa amulet. And there’s also a quite extraordinary stepladder from the Middle Iron Age that was made by carving footholds into a tree trunk. The ladder is nearly eight feet tall and would have been used to get water from a well.
The dig team in addition discovered three Anglo-Saxon settlements that date from the 5th to the 10th centuries. One of those, near the modern-day village of Conington, is from the 7th and 8th centuries. This was a fortified village with an imposing timber gateway. And such a substantial structure might even have had royal connections. Intriguingly, the name Conington is derived from the Old English “cyninges-tun,” meaning king’s enclosure.
Yet that still leaves us with the puzzle of why the three unfortunate men were hacked to pieces and their bodies roughly cast aside. We’ve heard about the theory that their brutal ends may have been some form of punishment. But we can only guess at what crimes they could have committed to warrant such brutal treatment.
Another hypothesis posits that the men may have been so gruesomely butchered because of a superstition that the dead bodies might otherwise have risen up and chased their persecutors. However, the eerie discovery was only first reported in June 2018, so there is much more to learn about the fate of the men. The next stage of the research will be to subject the teeth and bones to carbon dating and DNA testing. Perhaps then some of the secrets of the unfortunate trio will be revealed.