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Case of facial mutilation discovered from early medieval England

An early medieval skull found in southern England has revealed a young woman who had her nose and lips cut off and may also have been scalped. This is the first archaeological example of facial mutilation from this period.

The skull was excavated in the 1960s at Oakridge in Basingstoke, England, during archaeological work on an Iron Age settlement. Decades later, Garrard Cole, from University College London, and a team of archaeologists and scientists from around the United Kingdom have finally analysed the cranium, uncovering its brutal story. Their research has now been published in the journal Antiquity.

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Radiocarbon dating revealed the skull most likely dates to AD 776-899. It belonged to a woman who died shortly after the facial mutilation, perhaps from her injuries. Her wounds were severe – it included a cut through the nose, so deep it sliced through the surrounding bone, and another cut across her mouth. There was also a cut across her forehead that may represent an attempted scalping, or perhaps an aggressive attempt at cutting off her hair. Moreover, the wounds show no signs of healing, suggesting she did not survive for long afterwards. She was aged 15-18 at the time, based on dental and cranial development.

Occlusal view of the maxilla, showing the erupted left first molar. Photo by G. Cole / Antiquity

Beyond the time and circumstances surrounding her death, little else is known about this woman. The archaeologists also studied the skull’s stable isotopes. These are chemical elements incorporated into someone’s skeleton that vary based on their diet, including where their food and water came from over the past few years of life. The analysis indicates that she was most likely not from the local area, but was unable to provide more information about where she came from.

The authors offer a possible reason why this young woman was mutilated. In their article they state:

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Although the skeletal evidence taken in isolation permits multiple possible explanations for the trauma, the combined strands of evidence discussed above lead us to conclude that this is a case of deliberate facial mutilation, with possible scalping or, more probably, removal of the hair. The specificity of the wounds strongly suggests that her mutilation was punitive, either at the hands of a local mob marking her perceived offence by established custom, or by local administrators applying legal prescription. In either scenario, the woman—or at least her head—was then outcast to the limit of the local territory. As noted above, the isolated nature of the cranium perhaps indicates punishment at the most local level.

They note that law codes from the time indicate this gruesome act may have been carried out as punishment for thieving slaves, adulteresses, and others accused of heinous offences. Specifically, several law codes that prescribe the injuries suffered by this woman as punishments for various crimes. King Cnut’s (AD 1016–1035) second law code calls for the removal of the eyes, nose, ears, upper lip and scalp for a ‘greater crime’ than theft. It also stipulates the removal of the nose and ears in the case of a woman accused of adultery. Additionally, King Edmund’s (AD 921–946) third law code, lists scourging, removal of the scalp and mutilation of the little finger in combination as the penalty for thieving slaves.

Despite these records, no physical evidence of this punishment has previously been discovered. “This case appears to be the first archaeological example of this particularly brutal form of facial disfigurement known from Anglo-Saxon England,” the archaeologists explain.

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Close-up views of the facial trauma, the cuts and nicks are marked by arrows Photographs by G. Cole / Antiquity

The article “Summary justice or the King’s will? The first case of formal facial mutilation from Anglo-Saxon England,” by Garrard Cole, Peter W. Ditchfield, Katharina Dulias, Ceiridwen J. Edwards, Andrew Reynolds and Tony Waldron, is published in the latest issue of Antiquity.

Top Image: The cranium of the mutilated female. Photograph by G. Cole / Antiquity 

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