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The skull pits along the Walbrook in Londinium

On January 10th, the Journal of Archaeological Science published a study, Headhunting and amphitheatre combat in Roman London, England: new evidence from the Walbrook Valley, written by Rebecca Redfern and Heather Bonney.  In this article the authors discuss their research on 39 skulls recovered from 52-63 London Wall, an industrial area in the upper Walbrook valley, near the Walbrook stream in London

In 1989, archaeologists discovered the skulls in a “series of pits that were once connected to tanneries and a well that was once near the Walbrook stream.”  Most of the skulls were male between the ages of 26 and 35, and dated to between A.D. 120 to 160, when London was known as Londinium.

The base of a mandible (jawbone) showing a sharp force injury. Click here to see more figures from the article

Microscopic wear analysis conducted by Redfern and Bonney revealed multiple peri-mortem blunt- and sharp- force injuries, such as “smashed or slashed faces, fractures of the eye and cheekbones, and blows to the back of the head,” some of which showed signs of healing.  Multiple traumatic injuries like these suggest that these men led brutal lives

The authors argue these skulls maybe trophy skulls collected by the Roman army, executed criminals, or gladiators defeated in Londinium‘s amphitheater

“It is possible that these represent the remains of executed criminals, gladiators, and trophy heads,” Redfern told National Geographic. “We are confident that injuries we observed on these human remains could not have been caused by accident.”

This news reminded me of the two other discovery of a large number of skulls along the Walbrook, because it seems like finding skulls along the Walbrook is not that unusual.

Last September 20 skulls were unearthed by tunnellers working for the Crossrail Project who were digging a pit near the Liverpool Street station.  Archaeologists thought these skulls belonged to either victims of Boudicca’s revolution in A.D. 61, or were bones washed down from a nearby Roman burial site and collected along the banks of the Walbrook stream.  According to their initial observations, there was no evidence of “foul play.”  However, in light of Redfern and Bonney’s findings, the archaeologists working with the Crossrail skulls may want to look a little closer.  It’s just weird that there are 2 large caches of skulls so close together that date to around the same period.

Picture of one of the 20 skulls recovered from the Crossrail project in 2013.  Photo via the BBC.  Click here to see the full size photo and additional pictures.

Also, in the 1860’s General Augustus Pitt Rivers, an early English archaeologist, discovered a number of skulls in the bed of the Walbrook.  The find happened just south of London Wall in the Walbrook, though finding the exact location is proving elusive.

Maybe it’s just a gruesome coincidence?

Below is a map of that I constructed based on where the news reports said the skulls were found.


Vergano, Dan. (2014 January 15).  Headhunters’ Trophy Skulls Uncovered From Ancient London.  National Geographic.  Retrieved on January 16, 2014 from:

Williams, Amanda. (2014 January 15). Mystery of 39 skulls found at London Wall is solved after 25 years: Decapitated heads were ‘gladiators’ who fought in the City.  MailOnline.  Retrieved on January 16, 2014 from:

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