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  • Susan Elaine Jones

Don't lose your head. Or your teeth.

Drawings by Susan Elaine Jones; Decapitated skeletons excavated in archaeological sites in the UK

This week I have mostly been thinking about decapitations.

It started as a casual conversation with someone who will remain anonymous but who can confirm that she knows the person who knows the whereabouts of Oliver Cromwell's head.

Oliver Cromwell's head, held by his generous posthumous benefactor

For those of you who don't know, having rested peacefully in Westminster Abbey, he was dug up and posthumously executed after the restoration of the English Monarchy. The corpse was exhumed and then hanged, and later his head was placed on a spike at Westminster Hall in a traditional show of the fate of traitors. From there it passed through the hands of private collectors and museum owners and eventually making its way into sympathetic hands, who gave it a decent but secret burial somewhere in the grounds of his former Cambridge College, Sidney Sussex (possibly giving him a very fine view of the wisteria on the fence, and the Sainsbury's across the road).

When I heard this, I had to ask myself just how angry do you have to be to decide to dig up a corpse in order to torture and execute it?

Presumed anti-vampire measures applied to a skull in Italy

I had come across stories of witches being buried with their head placed by their feet to prevent any sort of post-mortem witchery. Also on the continent I had heard of people buried with the mouth filled with stones or jammed open with a large rock to prevent vampirism.

Decapitation has been thought to mean a number of things. When Roman remains are found this way, it has been ascribed to them being gladiators. (Though one in 20 roman burials is a decap, which seems a lot to me. Some may have just washed away in a river.) When medieval we think witches. When neolithic it was "ritual" (and later found to be due to seated burial heads wobbling off).

Then, I was lucky enough to have a conversation with a lovely lady, who, amongst the massive heft of knowledge in her head, gave me an insight into how little we know about why skeletons are found this way, and what we might infer from the finds. She is so marvelously pragmatic, she discussed the many aspects of weird burials that have been found. For example, I hadn't realised how many medieval burials are "prone" (or face down). And that there has been speculation that that was an anti-witchery practice. Or a mark of disrespect. Or possibly high regard.

Frankly, we have no idea what these things might mean.

But she did give me one wonderful insight. Some decapitated burials are from the time of death - either the head was removed as the cause of death, or in the time immediately afterwards. But sometimes, the body has been exhumed years later and the head then removed and placed by the feet. And though archaeologists can't say why, they can tell that it happened. By the awesome tell-tale sign of the front teeth. After the skull rots, the teeth become loose. If the head is between the feet, but the front teeth remain above the neck, you can be assured that this body was dug up and the head moved well after death.


What would this achieve?

Revenge? Protection?

How can we possibly know?

But how superbly weird is it to know that it happened?

(I'm so sorry to not have any pictures to illustrate this. I have been scouring the archaeological text books, periodicals and websites, and slowly collecting and sketching my favourites.)

(p.s. have you resisted scrolling back up to check if Oliver Cromwell's head has any teeth in it?)

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