Mutilated Woman's Skull Shows The Ghastly Punishments Of Anglo-Saxon England

Photo by Garrard Cole/Antiquity 2020

Archaeologists have studied the skull of an Anglo-Saxon woman who appears to have had her face horrifically mutilated as a punishment shortly before her death. Her crime? If historical legal documents are anything to go by, she was either a slave who stole from her master, had committed adultery, or had broken the law with a “particularly heinous offense.” 

The grisly skull was first discovered in the 1960s at Oakridge near the English town Basingstoke. Decades on, a team of archaeologists from University College London and the University of Oxford have taken a closer look at the cranium and revealed that it tells the dark story of a mutilated young woman in Anglo-Saxon England. Their study was reported today in the journal Antiquity.

The skull, thought to date to between 776 and 899 CE, belonged to a young woman who died at around the age of 15 to 18 based on dental and skull development. The cranium reveals a distinct pattern of damage that strongly suggests her nose and lips were purposely cut off and she may have been scalped. The lack of healing around the wounds suggests the woman died shortly after the mutilation, most likely as a result of her injuries.

"There can be little doubt that the victim died at the time – or soon after – the traumatic event," the study reads. 

But the question remained, what could possibly explain such a horrific last few moments on Earth? Other archeological discoveries at Oakridge suggest this area was not a normal Anglo-Saxon burial ground and was perhaps used to bury social outcasts who were not deemed worthy to be buried in the local graveyard. A stable isotope analysis – a technique that looks for the ratio of chemical elements incorporated into someone’s skeleton to understand their diet and where they spent most of their life – indicated she was most likely not from the local area.

Given the nature of the injuries and the fact that mutilations were often used in Anglo-Saxon England for punishment, the researchers started to look through historic documents to see if the injuries could be linked to any archaic laws. A few laws they stumbled across appeared to be particularly relevant. King Cnut’s (1016 to 1035 CE) second law code says people who committed an offense “greater than theft” should have their eyes, nose, ears, upper lip, and scalp removed. It also notes the removal of the nose and ears in the case of a woman accused of adultery. Perhaps equally relevant, King Edmund’s (921 to 946 CE) third law code says thieving slaves should receive the punishment of scalping and the mutilation of the little finger.

While it’s not possible to pinpoint which of these acts the person was found guilty of, the researchers maintain their study shows the earliest records of this punishment in England, suggesting the gruesome practice is older than previously held.


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