Off with his head!

Press Release: 24/07/2008

Dr Annia Cherryson examining the bones

Winchester City Council’s Museums Service is using the latest scientific techniques to provide new insights into old crimes and punishments. Saxon human remains from a mass grave at Harestock are being re-examined in the light of new research. In the late 1980s, excavations led by Winchester Museums uncovered a number of skeletons carelessly buried in shallow pits, sometimes face down or with bound hands, and often decapitated with their heads placed by their legs.

As late Saxon law codes specifically prohibit the burial of executed criminals in consecrated ground, the site is believed to have been both a place of execution and a grave for people condemned to death and consequently forbidden churchyard burial. Its location, precisely on the ancient boundary of the city of Winchester, emphasises that late Saxon society considered these people to be literally ‘beyond the pale’.

Dr Annia Cherryson, a specialist in osteoarchaeology (this is the study of both human and animal remains found at archaeology sites), and ancient burial practices first took an interest in the cemetery whilst researching her doctoral thesis at Sheffield University. Having raised grant aid for radiocarbon dating, which confirmed that the skeletons are from the late Saxon period (9th – 11th centuries AD), she has now returned to Winchester to gather more data.

Dr Cherryson said of the skeletons she has recorded so far, “They seem to be mainly quite young, male and in reasonably good health at the time of death. The person pictured is a little older, though, perhaps in his mid 30s and had not led an easy life. He has a compression fracture of the spine and osteoarthritis in his left knee, both of which may be linked to a traumatic event. He also suffered from active infections in his lower left leg and lower jaw.”

Detailed examination of the cut marks on some of the neck vertebrae suggests that beheading was not the normal execution method, but that this was done afterwards in order to dishonour the body further. As some bodies are altogether headless, whilst other graves had extra heads, it may be that heads were displayed on the site as a dire warning to would-be law-breakers entering Winchester.

Helen Rees, Curator of Archaeology at Winchester Museums, said, “There have been major advances in the study of human bones in recent years, and I’m pleased that the more grisly aspects of what we hold in store are yielding up their secrets to science.”

Cllr Patricia Stallard, Winchester City Council’s Portfolio Holder for Heritage, Culture and Sport, added, “The City Council’s reserve collections are of nationwide significance for the Late Saxon period and I’m delighted that their vast scientific potential is gradually being unlocked.  It’s as exciting and grisly, in this case, as a modern ‘whodunnit’ novel.”

This is not the only so called ‘execution cemetery’ in Hampshire as similar sites were excavated on Meon Hill and Stockbridge Down in the 1930s. The Harestock cemetery is arguably the most important though, as it provides a direct insight into judicial processes in England’s foremost late Saxon city. Winchester Museums Service is hoping to publish the results of the research in a national journal in due course.