| 2 July 2000
Skeleton unearthed at Stonehenge was decapitated
An ancient skeleton excavated from Stonehenge (England) has revealed a grisly execution at the famous site.
The skeleton was unearthed in 1923 but was thought to have been destroyed in 1941 by the Nazi bombing blitz on London. At that time, it was being held at the Royal College of Surgeons, which suffered three direct hits. However, the chance discovery of a letter by an archaeologist researching a book led to the skeleton's re-discovery in May 1999 at London's Natural History Museum.
Modern analysis techniques show that the skeleton belonged to a man aged about 35 who had his head cut off by a sword. The male skeleton dates anywhere from 100 BCE to 1000 CE, and it had been thought that his death was the result of natural causes. However, Jacqueline McKinley, of Wessex Archaeology, discovered a small nick on the lower jaw and a cut mark on the fourth neck vertebra. This clean cut from behind, and his single grave, suggest an execution with a sharp sword, rather than a death in battle.
A bone sample is being analyzed using carbon-dating techniques at Oxford University. Meanwhile, Paul Budd at the University of Bradford has analysed the ratios of lead, strontium and oxygen isotopes in the skeleton's tooth enamel to determine the geology of the victim's home territory. So far they have a picture of a thirty-something 1.65-metre man who grew up in southern England. He also had protruding front teeth.
The discovery has thrilled archaeologists who see it as compelling evidence that the prehistoric site remained a place of symbolic importance in Roman or Saxon times.
Archaeologist Mike Pitts - who helped relocate the skeleton - speculated the man could have been a local chief or Druid priest, symbolically executed by the Romans to make a political statement. Alternatively, he may have been a wrongdoer beheaded by the Saxons for political or religious misdeeds, suggesting that Stonehenge - the name derives from the Old English word Stanhenges, meaning "stone gallows" - was a judicial execution site.
Only one other complete skeleton from Stonehenge exists. It was excavated in 1978 from the ditch around the circle. The man had died in a hail of flint-tipped arrows.
Two other skeletons have been found. One was probably a Roman, and was reburied at Stonehenge in 1922. The other was excavated in 1926 from the centre of the circle and was possibly contemporary with the site, but has now been lost.
Sources: BBC News (9 June 2000), ABCE News (13 June 2000), Fox News (14 June 2000), New Scientist (17 June 2000)
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