Judicial facial mutilation in Anglo-Saxon England?

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Close-up images of the cranium, showing evidence of facial trauma (as indicated by the arrows). CREDIT: Garrard Cole et al., Antiquity Publications Ltd

Anglo-Saxon law codes speak of facial mutilation as a punishment for certain crimes, but until recently no archaeological evidence had been found for it in England. Now the skull of a young woman discovered in Oakridge, Basingstoke, has been identified as the first possible example. It also suggests that this brutal practice had a longer history than had been previously thought.

The cranium (the main part of a skull, minus the lower jaw) was initially discovered in the 1960s during an excavation in advance of a housing development, but remained unexamined for decades. With no other part of the skeleton recovered and no meaningful contextual evidence remaining from the dig, it remained enigmatic – until it was recently rediscovered and found to have multiple sharp-force injuries that probably happened at or around the time of death. This prompted a multifaceted investigation – led by researchers from the University of London and recently published in Antiquity – into the life and death of this individual.

The first steps the team took were to use radiocarbon dating and aDNA analysis. The results showed that the cranium came from a young woman who probably lived between AD 775 and 950. Additionally, as the bones that make up the cranium were mostly unfused and the third molars unerupted, it appears that she had been 15-18 years old when she died. The team also carried out strontium- and oxygen-isotope analysis on some of her tooth enamel, along with carbon- and nitrogen-isotope analysis on some of the dentine collagen; this revealed that she was probably not local to the area in which she was buried, but was unable to identify where she may have come from.

With some of the woman’s background filled in, the team examined her injuries more closely, identifying one cut just above her left eye, as well as multiple cut marks around her nose and upper lip. The V-shape of several of the cuts indicates that they were probably made by a knife, and it appears that the nose and lips had been removed, as well as possibly the hair or scalp. While it cannot be determined whether these cuts were made shortly before her death or shortly after it, the team suggests that if they were made during life they may have been severe enough to kill her.

In all, these injuries appear to have been made in a deliberate attempt to mutilate this woman’s face: the team suggests that she may have been punitively mutilated for a perceived offence and that her body may have been dismembered and placed in different locations to serve as a warning to others. Having scoured historical documents, they suggest that ‘the legal corpus [from this period] indicates that mutilation of the head was a particular punishment limited to slaves, adulteresses, and those committing particularly heinous offences.’ As the law codes are largely later in date than the cranium, however, dating to the reigns of Cnut (AD 1016-1035) and Edmund (AD 921-946), it may indicate that this form of punishment had a longer history than written evidence attests.

For more information, see https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2020.176.

This news article appears in issue 370 of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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