Stanwick (G-B) : Archaeologists discover man whose tongue was replaced by a stone

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2609A close-up of the skull with a flat stone wedged between the jaws. Photograph: Historic England

A gruesome and seemingly unique mutilation has emerged from a Roman Britain burial site in Northamptonshire – the skeleton of a man whose tongue had apparently been amputated and replaced with a flat stone wedged into his mouth.

The man had been interred face down, perhaps amid fears that his corpse would rise to threaten people once again, archaeologists believe.

The burial site, at Stanwick near the river Nene, dates from the third or fourth century, when people would have lived in small farming communities. It was discovered in 1991, but only now has research been conducted by archaeologists and other specialists at Historic England, formerly English Heritage.

Simon Mays, Historic England’s human skeletal biologist, told the Guardian that such a Romano-British mutilation was thought to be unique. He said: “This isn’t something that’s been identified so far in the archaeological records. So it’s identifying a new practice … The fact that he’s buried face down in the grave is consistent with somebody whose behaviour marked them out as odd or threatening within a community.”

2698The skeleton was found buried face down, which researchers believe may imply the man had been feared as a threat to the community. Photograph: Historic England

Ageing techniques are imprecise, but the man is believed to have been in his 30s at the time of his death.

One theory is that he had mental health issues and severed his own tongue. Another is that the amputation was a form of punishment.

Mays said: “There are Germanic law codes which talk about cutting people’s tongues out because they spread malicious accusations against other people. We’re looking into it at the moment, but I don’t know whether there are any Roman laws to that effect. Feedback I’ve had hasn’t indicated that there were … although that is of course still possible. We don’t know much about practices in Roman Britain as opposed to Rome itself.”

Asked how archaeologists know the tongue was amputated, Mays explained: “What gave us this idea is that there are other burials from Roman Britain where missing body parts in the grave are replaced by objects at the appropriate anatomical location. There are only about 10 of these that we’ve so far been able to identify. The great majority are decapitations, where you’ve got a stone or a pot placed where the head should be. We thought that, because of this, perhaps a stone could replace the tongue because it’s in the front part of the mouth where the tongue ought to be.”

Further confirmation of that theory came through tests on the bones. Mays said: “If you cut somebody’s tongue out, the mouth is full of bacteria and so you’re likely to get an infection. We did indeed find evidence of infection on the bones, so that seems to support the idea.”

He added: “The whole idea of replacing a severed body part with an object is interesting in itself. It could be an attempt to complete an incomplete body. Or it could be an attempt to replace part of a body with something obviously inanimate, like a stone or a pot, to prevent the corpse from being complete.”

Individuals who were buried face down have been found sporadically in cemeteries from the late Roman and early Saxon periods. Some archaeologists have argued that such corpses may have been feared as a continued threat to the community. Mays said: “It’s a way of stopping the corpse from rising from its grave and menacing the living.” There have been much later examples of skulls with stones in their mouths.

The skull was originally lifted by archaeologists in a soil block in 1991. Only now has there been the manpower to study it in a laboratory, in controlled conditions to preserve all evidence. The cemetery held 35 people.