North Severan Ditch: Partial Cranium

Author: Dr Trudi Buck, Associate Professor in Anthropology, Durham University


The partial remains of a human skull were found near the bottom of the north facing ditch during excavation of the Severan fort of Vindolanda in August 2018.  The partial skull consists of the frontal bone with the nasal bones still attached, though the right nasal bone has been damaged in the past, probably at the time of death.  The face of the skull has also become detached in antiquity.  Although fragmentary, it is possible to use slight variations found in the skull morphology to determine the sex and the ancestry of the individual.  The skull has a pronounced brow ridge that is most commonly found on males, and the shape and size of the nasal bones suggest that he was likely to have been of European ancestry.  His appearance would also have been marked by having a very distinctive and prominent nose.

    Image above of the partial cranium with cut mark clearly visible.

There are signs of injury to the top and sides of the man’s head which would have been caused at around the time of his death.  An unhealed cut mark, probably caused by a slashing action with a sword or knife from an adversary facing him, is present on the right side of his forehead.  The wound is about 2.5cm long and travels from the front, just behind his right eye socket, towards the back of the head.  A smaller cut mark is present on the left side of the forehead.  Neither of these wounds cut through the bone and whilst they would probably have bled quite ferociously would not have been fatal, although the fact that they do not show any signs of healing suggests that they were caused at near the time of his death.   The separation of the face below the eyes is indicative of a fracture caused by a violent blow to the face.  This blow would probably have incapacitated the man and lessened his ability to fight.  None of the visible injuries, including this, would have been the fatal blow, and death was likely to have been caused by an injury or injuries to other parts of the body not found. 


               Images above show the North Severan ditch where the skull was located and Dr Trudi Buck at Vindolanda.

Although no more of his skull has yet been located, it is probable that the man was decapitated shortly after death and his head brought back to the fort as a war trophy by the Roman soldiers, suffering the same fate of the man whose head was found in the south ditch of this settlement over ten years ago.  This individual came from the north-west of Britain, as determined by isotope analysis of his teeth.  The damage patterns to this skull show clearly that his head was decapitated and then placed on a stake after death, which came about through a series of violent wounds to both sides of his head.  Evidence of such trophy head taking by Roman auxiliary soldiers can be found on Trajan’s Column in Rome and more locally on the tomb stone of Insus, a member of the German Treveri tribe and a trooper in the Ala Augusta, which was found near Lancaster in 2005.  It is likely then that both the partial skulls from the Severan ditches at Vindolanda were examples of trophy heads, brought back from fighting elsewhere in the province and displayed on the ramparts of the fort until they decomposed and fell into the ditch.  This is further supported by the fact that both of the skulls display wounds to the head that were probably inflicted by a sword during face to face combat. 

Image above: South ditch Severan skull.

Both of these skulls are on display in the Vindolanda museum.