20 Roman Skulls Found Deep Beneath London Railway Station During Crossrail Dig

By Josh Lieberman on October 2, 2013 1:50 PM EDT

crossrail dig
20 Roman skulls were found by construction crews working on the Crossrail, a new railway in and around London. (Photo: Crossrail)

A construction crew in London has uncovered what are believed to be 20 Roman skulls. The construction workers were digging beneath Liverpool Street Station as part of Crossrail, a commuter railway that will link London and surrounding areas, when they came upon the Roman skulls and some pottery. 

The discovery was made in the sediment of the River Walbrook, one of London's "lost" rivers which was mostly paved over in the 1400s. The Walbrook may have carried the Roman skulls and pottery downriver from a burial site to the location where they were found. The artifacts were buried roughly 10 feet underground, below another excavation site, the Bedlam burial ground. The 16th century cemetery contains 3,000 skeletons that will be moved next year. 

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Nicholas Elsden of the Museum of London Archaeology said that the Roman skulls, which haven't been dated yet, are probably from the 3rd to 4th centuries AD, a time when Romans buried their dead instead of cremating them.

"It's relatively unusual to find so many concentrated [in one area] when you're not in a graveyard," said Elsden. "We're 100 yards outside the Roman city walls."

Osteologist Don Walker, also of the Museum of London Archaeology, said the shading of the skulls indicated they were probably buried elsewhere.  

"Forensic studies show that when the body disintegrates near a watercourse, the skull travels furthest, either because it floats or it can roll along the base of the river," Walker told the BBC. "They were possibly buried in an area where there wasn't much land available. At the moment it looks as though they've collected together through natural processes."

This isn't the first time that the River Walbrook, a tributary of the Thames, has yielded Roman skulls. Some historians suspect that Roman skulls found over the years along the Thames were victims of Queen Boudicca, the 1st century leader of a Celtic tribe that rebelled against Roman rule, decapitating their victims and throwing the heads in rivers. Jay Carver, lead archaeologist on the Crossrail project,  acknowledged the possible Boudicca connection, but said that the "unexpected and fascinating discovery" was probably from a Roman burial ground.

"We now think the skulls are possibly from a known Roman burial ground about 50 metres up river from our Liverpool Street station work site," said Carver. "Their location in the Roman layer indicates they were possibly washed down river during the Roman period."

The Museum of London Archaeology plans to analyze the Roman skulls to find out the age, sex and diet of the people to whom the skulls belonged.

London's Crossrail project has proved to be an archaeologist's dream, with thousands of artifacts uncovered since the digging began in 2009. Everything from a mammoth jaw bone to Black Death victims from the 1300s have been dug up. In April, archaeologists hit the motherlode when they found the "Pompeii of the north" 40 feet underground, entire streets of Roman London, with timber buildings and fences, along with personal items like clothing and even tablets containing love letters.

READ MORE:

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Coffin In A Coffin: UK Archaeologists Unearth Mysterious Double Casket At King Richard III's Grave Site [VIDEO]

Tomb Discovered In Peru: Archaeologists Uncover Amazing Untouched Royal Wari Burial Site

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