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Archaeology: Decapitation in Medieval Ireland

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katyFor Bones Don’t Lie writes: Beheading was a popular mode of execution throughout human history – it is dramatic, final and is often part of a public display of power by the victors over the soon to be deceased. Whenever I think about this type of execution, I think back to the famous paintings of Judith slaying Holofernes. When I was a high school student, I took a summer art course where we had to do a large oil painting as our final project. I did a version of Judith slaying Holofernes, complete with a triumphant female in purple robes holding a bloodied sword and a decapitated head.

“Decapitation comes from the Latin capitis- meaning head, and is the separation of the head from the body which results in death. Severing the head causes all other organs within the body to fail and deprives the brain of oxygen.”

Perhaps it isn’t surprising then that I’m a mortuary archaeologist… Moving on, decapitation and beheading actually have quite a long history, although it can be difficult to interpret this from the archaeological record. In addition to the execution style of head removal, we’ve seen certain cases where heads were removed after death as a form of ancestor veneration (see this article on Neolithic burials from the Near East and this one on gladiators), so the removal of the head cannot be assumed to mean something negative or violent- we need to look closely at the context and bioarchaeology.

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The double burial of two adult males CCLXXX and CCLXXXI dating from AD 656 to 765 from Mount Gamble, Dublin both displaying evidence of decapitation with both skulls in situ (O’Donovan and Geber 2009, 73).

Beheading in particular refers to an intentional decapitation, including murder or execution. These terms don’t refer to the method of decapitation, so it can be done with axe, sword, knife, wire, or guillotine. In beheadings, the act is carried out by a professional executioner known as a ‘headsman’.”

First, let’s quickly review some terms. Decapitation comes from the Latin capitis- meaning head, and is the separation of the head from the body which results in death. Severing the head causes all other organs within the body to fail and deprives the brain of oxygen. Beheading in particular refers to an intentional decapitation- including murder or execution. These terms don’t refer to the method of decapitation, so it can be done with axe, sword, knife, wire, or guillotine. In beheadings, the act is carried out by a professional executioner known as a ‘headsman’.

[Read the full text here, at Bones Don’t Lie]

A new article by Carty (2015) examines osteological evidence for decapitation from different skeletal assemblages from the Irish medieval period (6th to 16th century). Text from this period argues that decapitation was used primarily in warfare and as a form of punishment. Read the rest of this entry »

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