‘The Halved Heads’: Osteological Evidence for Decapitation in Medieval Ireland

Skull 9(a) from No. 16., Eustace Street, Dublin, a young adult female who also displays evidence of cut marks to the face, indicative of the nose being cut off (Image reproduced courtesy of the National Museum of Ireland)‘The Halved Heads’: Osteological Evidence for Decapitation in Medieval Ireland

By Niamh Carty

Papers from the Institute of Archaeology, Vol.25:1 (2015)

Abstract: This paper examines the osteological evidence for decapitation from 30 skeletal assemblages dated to the medieval period (6th to 16th century) from Ireland. This is the first time that these data have been examined in a comparative manner and across the population of medieval Ireland. Decapitation is traditionally presented and interpreted in the literature on a case study basis with decapitations being attributed to an action that was carried out as a direct result of warfare or as judicial practice. This paper aims to use the osteological data to examine these interpretations in terms of the Irish data and to use these data along with historical and literary sources to try to gain a fuller understanding of decapitation in medieval Ireland.

Introduction: As Tracy and Massey have pointed out, ‘the final cut, the fatal blow: beheading is one of the most pervasive modes of execution in human history […] decapitation crosses boundaries of time, culture, and genre while providing […] affirmations of power and authority’. This paper aims to examine the osteological evidence for decapitation in Medieval Ireland, which forms part of wider Irish Research Council (IRC) funded PhD research looking at osteological evidence of violence in Medieval Ireland. A particular attempt will be made here to understand the mortuary practices surrounding those who were decapitated and to put these decapitations in their historical context. This will entail an examination of the spatial, temporal, and demographic distribution of burials displaying evidence of decapitation and an assessment of the possible reasons for decapitation in Medieval Ireland. This interdisciplinary study will therefore seek to compare the archaeological data with the corpus of contemporary Irish medieval accounts and with the historiography of the period.


In total 56 sites of a medieval date (6th to 16th century) displaying osteological evidence of violent trauma have been analysed, with a total of 30 of these displaying evidence for decapitation. The number of decapitations per site ranges from 13 from No. 16, Eustace Street, Dublin to just one at a number of sites. These sites range from single interments to large multi-phase medieval cemeteries and all available material from the period was included in the study in an attempt to have the broadest data set possible. A total of 68 individuals display evidence of decapitation; and of those who could be sexed, there were 55 males and 7 females.

If decapitation was encountered, a full description of the decapitation was completed. This included which bones were affected, the direction of the blow, any indication of what weapon may have been employed, and a general description of the individual cut marks associated with the decapitation. This information was expanded upon with a full schematic drawing of the location of the decapitation related wounds and a photographic record to fully record the trauma. All of the individuals with evidence of decapitation were analysed in exactly the same manner in order to allow comparisons to be drawn between the individuals themselves and between the sites.


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