Outsiders and executions? An important new Roman cemetery near Sleaford

Roman burials in Lincolnshire have been a source of immense interest in recent years (see my post on some previous discoveries here) and the trend looks to continue with news of a fascinating burial group excavated by local archaeologists Allen Archaeology in 2012, the report of which I have just seen.

The excavation* took place at a site to the east of both the modern town of Sleaford and the known foci of Iron Age and Roman activity in the area. Sleaford is perhaps most famous for its Iron Age settlement, which has produced an enormous quantity of ceramic moulds for producing coin pellets (see Elsdon 1997), indicating that it may have been a centre of some importance. Roman activity at the site is also significant, though the town was never enclosed by a wall or defensive ditches.

roman roads base map

Major roads and settlements of Roman Lincolnshire

As I’ve just said, the excavations we’re discussing here took place to the east of the main areas of activity, which are detailed in the image below. The evidence of the road leaving the Roman town to the east is of significance, as it is likely that it continued broadly along the line of the modern Boston Road and ran immediately to the south of the excavation site.

site map

The site and main areas of activity nearby

The archaeologists have divided Roman activity at the site into three main phases:

  1. A series of ditched enclosures established during the 2nd Century, probably representing fields and paddocks. In the south eastern corner of the site, close to the probable road line, was some evidence for timber structures and shallow pits, possibly associated with small-scale sand and gravel extraction.
  2. A realignment of some of the boundaries in the later 2nd Century for unknown reasons. Continued use of timber structures in the southeastern corner and of sand and gravel extraction activity.
  3. The establishment of a cemetery in the late 2nd or 3rd Century. Thirteen burials were uncovered. More are likely to originally have existed, but the site has been truncated by later agricultural activity.

It is to these burials that we will now turn, as they form a most unusual and important group. Details of the thirteen burials can be found in a table at the end of this post and I will not refer to them all individually, but some of them are worthy of closer inspection, and scientific analysis has raised interesting questions about their origins and the possible connections between them. In terms of location, the skeletons would seem to have formed part of a formal cemetery positioned on the northern side of the probable road. Other burials have previously been excavated to the east of the Roman town and this cemetery fits in with the the normal pattern for burials outside of Roman towns along major road routes.

Demographically the skeletons are quite varied, though poor preservation has led to the sex and age of a number of them remaining unknown. Of the skeletons that could be assigned a sex, four are female and only one is male. With regard to their ages, one was an infant, one a child and there were nine adults. Of the adults, three might be classed as younger adults and six as middle aged or older.

One of the most fascinating developments in human skeletal analysis in recent years has been in isotope analyses. The water that we drink when young leaves a measurable chemical trace in our bodies. By analysing the oxygen and strontium isotope signatures in human bone (usually best obtained from tooth enamel), and comparing them with background data, suggestions can be made as to where that individual spent their youth. Although these methods produce broad geographical zones rather than exact locations, they provide us with fascinating data about the movement of people in the ancient world, as we will see from the Sleaford skeletons.

Of the thirteen skeletons, nine were able to have isotope analysis carried out (see the table, below). The strontium isotope results were not out of place for people brought up in Lincolnshire, but the oxygen isotope results suggested something different. The results indicated that all of the individuals had an origin somewhere to the south and / or east of Lincolnshire. Research by Allen Archaeology suggests that the closest dataset match currently known is from an Anglo Saxon burial group in Ringlemere, Kent. Although these results must be treated with caution, not least because we still have very little comparative data for other Lincolnshire burials, the results are intriguing. Can we suggest that this small cemetery represents a social group from the southeast of England, retaining a sense of shared identity in death as well as in life? We know that tribal identities continued to be relevant throughout Roman Britain, as attested by tombstone evidence, so this burial group may represent the cemetery used by a group of people of the Cantiaci tribe living in the tribal area of the Corieltavi. Even skeleton 317, that of a child aged between 2 and 5, shows such an origin, which might suggest that the group had not long been in the area, or that new members continued to migrate there over time.

The significance of the cemetery does not end there, however, as a number of individual burials are unusual, and what we would term ‘deviant’. If the burial group does represent a single community, then the burial practices they used were not consistent. The burials are orientated both north/south and east/west, and with inconsistency in the shape and size of grave cuts. Although supine burials (individuals buried lying on their backs) predominate, crouched burials were also found, a more unusual burial position in the Roman period. Some burials were even more unusual, however, with two of the burials being decapitated, one with hands apparently tied behind their back, and another weighed down with stones. We will examine each of these in turn.

Skeleton 892

357a. LCNCC.2012.1 Skeleton 892 in [891]

Skeleton 892 in situ. Image copyright Allen Archaeology Ltd

359b. LCNCC.2012.1 Skeleton 892 Skull

The skull of skeleton 892. Image copyright Allen Archaeology Ltd

Skeleton 892 is a decapitation burial, but one of a more ‘traditional’ nature, if such a thing can be said. The body is that of a female, of at least 45 years of age, and lays supine with her arms placed across her chest. Her head has been placed on top of her feet, orientated upright and facing away from the body.

Decapitation burials are a cause of endless fascination, but are actually a well-attested phenomenon in some parts of Roman Britain. The head has usually been neatly removed at around the time of death, but debate rages as to whether the decapitation was the cause of death or a rite carried out soon afterwards. Unfortunately, archaeological evidence cannot often tell us in sufficiently precise detail but the difference between the two is, of course, vast. The removal of the head as a method of death suggests that decapitated burials represent executions or ritual killings. The removal of the head after death, while still rather gruesome and unacceptable to our sensibilities, may still be ritual but may have been seen as a positive act rather than one of punishment. The evidence for cults of the head in Iron Age Britain and the taking of the heads of defeated enemies provide an additional possible context in the Roman period, with beliefs around the head and benefits gained through its removal remaining prevalent.

Skeleton 902

370b. LCNCC.2012.1 Skeleton 902 in Grave

Skeleton 902 in situ. Image copyright Allen Archaeology Ltd

372. LCNCC.2012.1 Skeleton 902 Close Up Skull

The skull of skeleton 902. Image copyright Allen Archaeology Ltd

401b. LCNCC.2012.1 Sk 902 Close Up Wrist

The wrists of skeleton 902. Image copyright Allen Archaeology Ltd

Skeleton 902 is in many ways one of the most remarkable Roman skeletons ever excavated in Lincolnshire. The individual was, similarly to skeleton 892, female and older than 45 years old. It too is a decapitation burial, but in this instance the skull has been placed underneath the body, by the right shoulder. The overall position of the body in the grave is clearly unusual, lying on the back but twisted awkwardly onto the left hand side, the right leg extended but the left leg bent at a sharp angle. The arms have the elbows out with the wrists together behind the back, giving the distinct impression that the hands were bound when the body was placed into the grave. Sadly, no traces of any organic bindings survived.

Even accepting that the decapitation may not in itself be an act of disrespect or punishment, the position of the body and the likelihood of the hands being bound strongly suggest that this individual may represent an execution. The body was not located away from any of the other, ‘normal’, burials and the isotope analysis shows that the individual belonged to the potential southeastern cultural group discussed above. Sadly, we know very little of the process of law and order in Roman Britain, and how executed individuals may have been treated, for example being given back to their community for burial, or whether certain burial locations were taboo for people convicted of certain crimes. That this burial appears the way it does suggests that the community were not able or willing to place this individual in the ground in the manner that others in the cemetery were granted. Quite what this middle aged woman might have done to deserve her fate will sadly remain lost.

This skeleton will very likely become an important example of decapitation burial in the wider discussion of the practice nationally.

Skeleton 383

189e. LCNCC.2012.1 Skeleton 383

Skeleton 383 in situ. Image copyright Allen Archaeology Ltd

190a. LCNCC.2012.1 Skeleton 383 - Copy

Skeleton 383 during recording, showing the stones placed on the chest. Image copyright Allen Archaeology Ltd

Skeleton 838 is the only confirmed male skeleton excavated in the group and represents a deviant burial of a different type. In this case, the body has not been decapitated, and might appear a normal supine burial were it not for the pile of rough limestone pieces placed on his chest. The individual is a young adult, and another who isotope analysis identifies as being part of the potential ‘southeastern community’.

The act of placing stones on a body is another known but not well understood burial rite. The natural assumption is that the stones served to prevent the body from rising again, and this remains our best assessment of the practice. Should we be talking of ancient vampires and zombies though? Probably not, but clearly there was something about certain individuals which warranted this dramatic action. An interesting parallel comes from Rockbourne Villa in Hampshire, where a male skeleton weighed down with stones was shown to have had a deformity with his jaw and had his skull trepanned during his life. Might our young male here have similarly had some affliction (perhaps one not leaving a trace on his skeleton), that meant the community felt they had to weigh his body down – either for his protection or for theirs?

A number of the graves in the cemetery contained objects. Some contained ceramic sherds from vessels such as drinking beakers, no doubt placed next to the body and containing offerings. It may be of note that while skeleton 902 (the possible execution) was buried with no grave goods, both of the other ‘deviant’ burials (skeletons 892 and 383) contained ceramic vessels. However, not all of the ‘normal’ burials contained grave goods, so we must take care before over-interpreting this as an additional sign of a disrespectful burial.

One skeleton in the group is worthy of discussion with regard to its grave goods. Skeleton 887 was an individual of unknown sex, but aged 16-19, and buried with a north/south orientation. The grave goods in this burial consisted of a pair of hobnailed leather shoes or boots and the complete skeleton of a domestic hen, placed near the feet. Burials with hobnailed footwear are well known in Roman Britain, as the iron hobnails survive when other organic items of clothing do not, and they do seem to have been an important element of burial attire for some. The footwear buried with this skeleton appears to have been placed on top of the feet, hobnails uppermost, rather than being worn, judging by the photograph of them in situ.

364a. LCNCC.2012.1 Macro Shots of Shoe

Hobnailed shoe or boot with skeleton 887. Image copyright Allen Archaeology Ltd

The other find in this grave, the skeleton of a hen, is again an example of an attested burial rite in Roman Britain (see for example this occurrence from Saltersford in Lincolnshire). Complete animal remains are generally interpreted as food offerings for the deceased, and that would seem to have been the case in this burial. Out of interest, you can find out about a major project examining the relationships between humans and chickens throughout history here.

This cemetery can therefore be seen as a discovery of major importance, thankfully excavated and analysed to the highest standards by Allen Archaeology. There is still the potential for further study, not least in identifying parallels for the burial phenomena discussed above, and placing them in their wider national context. The site serves as an example of how, when it comes to understanding people’s beliefs surrounding justice, ritual and death, the more we learn, the more we realise we still have to learn.

*The information discussed in this post comes from the unpublished report for the project, which has been deposited with Historic Environment Record and The Collection museum (reference SLPS12), and will appear online through the Archaeological Data Service in due course.

Table of burials

skeletons table



Allen Archaeology Limited. 2016. Sleaford Renewable Energy Power Station, Boston Road, Sleaford. Report AAL 2015019

Elsdon, S. 1997. Old Sleaford Revealed: A Lincolnshire settlement in Iron Age, Roman, Saxon and Medieval times: excavations 1882-1995. Oxbow Monograph 78


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