History Stories

Archaeologists working at the site of a large roadworks project in Cambridgeshire, England recently stumbled on a grisly find—the bodies of two men whose legs had been chopped off at the knee, buried in a gravel pit being used as a garbage dump.  

The remains are believed to date back to the late Roman or early Saxon period, or at least 1,600 years ago. The men were buried at right angles to each other, forming a T-shape, with their hacked-off limbs laid carefully by their shoulders. Their skulls also appeared to have been smashed in, but it’s unclear whether this was the result of further violence, or simply later damage to the remains after burial.

The archaeologists who found these unusual burials are part of one of the largest-ever excavations in the United Kingdom, which is taking place at some 40 sites before the planned widening of the A14 highway between Cambridge and Huntingdon. At its height, TheGuardian reported, more than 250 archaeologists were working on the project, combing through 6,000 years of history contained within what looked like large and empty fields.

According to Mola Headland Infrastructure, a company working on the excavations, the project has uncovered extensive evidence for the Roman period, including an enormous ditch, about 3 meters (nearly 10 feet) wide and 1.5 meters deep, running around the site, that suggests the site served as a large-scale but temporary Roman military camp. The archaeologists have also discovered at least 40 pottery kilns and tons of the pottery, scattered around the excavation sites; a horse burial; the remains of a trade distribution center controlled by the army; and evidence of Roman settlement, farming and roads used for trade.

A set of unusual Roman burials being recorded by archaeologists. (Credit: Highways England/MOLA Headland Infrastructure)

A set of unusual Roman burials being recorded by archaeologists. (Credit: Highways England/MOLA Headland Infrastructure)

Though they’ve found very few human remains, the ones they have found suggest some pretty gruesome acts took place at the Cambridgeshire site. Some 50 meters from the graves of the two unfortunate men with their legs chopped off, the scientists found one more body buried in a Roman-era well lined with timber. The well had apparently already begun to fill in when someone threw the body inside—it had been chopped off at the waist, with the torso, head and arms still largely intact but the pelvis and leg bones completely missing.

Kasia Gdaniec, senior archaeologist with the Cambridge county council, told The Guardian that the evidence suggests Roman slaves may have produced food crops at the site for their conquerors.

“People talk about the archaeology of conquest, but I have never felt it as strongly as here,” Gdaniec said. “The Romans arrive, the people who were here are completely subjugated, everything changes and is never the same again. We are not seeing trade and peaceful co-existence here, we are seeing enslavement.”

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