A Roman cemetery containing 425 skeletons – around 40 of which were decapitated – has been unearthed in southeast England.
The cemetery, near Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire, is the largest of its kind ever discovered in the county and is the latest find of the controversial HS2 high-speed rail link project.
Some of the skeletons were found with their decapitated heads placed between their legs, a ritual that the archaeologists behind the discovery believe could indicate they were criminals or outcasts. Although they also acknowledge this was a “normal, albeit marginal, burial rite” at the time.
Alongside the bodies were several artifacts including pins, brooches, and Samian pottery.
Over 1,000 coins were found, plus lead weights, perhaps indicating that 2,000 years ago this was a place of trade and commerce. Meanwhile, the discovery of gaming dice and bells suggest the area was a hub of gambling and religious activities.
“The excavation is significant in both enabling a clear characterisation of this Roman town but also a study of many of its inhabitants,” Richard Brown, Senior Project Manager for COPA, the company behind the archaeologists working for HS2, said in a statement.
The town in question is in Fleet Marston, near the site where a 1,700-year-old rotten egg was discovered in an unrelated excavation. It once flanked Akeman Street – a major Roman road running from the Roman capital of Verulamium (now St Albans) to Corinium Dobunnorum (now Cirencester), via Roman Alchester (near Bicester).
Due to its location, the team suggests that the town may have been a staging post for travelers and soldiers making their way to the garrison at Alchester.
The discovery is far from a one-off. In fact, the site at Fleet Marston is just one of over 100 that HS2 has uncovered since 2018. In 2019, for example, the multi-billion dollar project discovered the remains of explorer Matthew Flinders in Euston, London.
“Along with several new Roman settlement sites discovered during the HS2 works [this new site] enhances and populates the map of Roman Buckinghamshire,” Brown added.
HS2’s first phase spans 225 kilometers (140 miles) between London and Birmingham and is the largest archaeological dig in Europe. It may cost an astonishing £44.6 billion ($60.3 billion) and raise a number of environmental concerns, but the archaeological findings are “an exciting and welcome byproduct” Neil Redfern, director of the Council of Archaeology, told the Financial Times.
“The HS2 archaeology programme has enabled us to learn more about our rich history in Britain. The large Roman cemetery at Fleet Marston will enable us to gain a detailed insight into the residents of Fleet Marston and the wider Roman Britain landscape,” Helen Wass, Head of Heritage at HS2 Ltd, said.
Over the next few years, the excavation at Fleet Marston will be analyzed, allowing us a rare insight into Roman Britain and the lives of those who lived there.