Records show that the Roman Empire used decapitation as a punishment, but there hasn't been much archaeological evidence to back this up—until now. Archaeologists who spent a decade working at three small Roman cemeteries in England say they determined than 17 of the 52 skeletons had been decapitated. In a study published last month in Britannia, the archaeologists say that percentage is staggering, and provided a unique research opportunity. While an estimated 2.3% to 3.7% of Roman-era burials are those of decapitated bodies, generally only one or two are found in a cemetery, leading to theories that in those cases it was a ritual practice performed on the dead. Isabel Lisboa tells the New York Times that's not the case here.
The positioning of the bodies makes it likely they were alive when they were beheaded; human sacrifice was prohibited by Roman law. In making the case that what occurred in the Cambridgeshire cemeteries was judicial decapitation, not a ritual removal of heads, the archaeologists write that the late date—remains were dated to the 3rd and 4th centuries—is noteworthy, as "the rise in decapitations in Britain coincided with increasing severity in Roman law. The number of crimes that carried the death penalty more than doubled in the third century and quadrupled in the fourth." An accompanying editorial adds that the farm near where the bodies were found is believed to have been a food supplier to the Roman military with grain and meat. "This would have placed the community under higher levels of official scrutiny than most rural settlements in Britain." (Read more archaeology stories.)