Colchester: death by sword in Boudicca’s war?

The dramatic find just over a week ago of burnt human bone has turned out to be even more dramatic than first thought! Two bones were involved in the drama, one part of a jawbone (mandible) and the other the top part of a shinbone (tibia). They were found in Boudiccan debris at our excavation site at the Williams & Griffin store in the High Street at Colchester. The debris is from the massive fire which Boudicca and her army started to burn down the Roman town here, as part of their attempt to drive the Roman army out of Britain. Although large areas of Boudiccan debris under Colchester have been investigated in the past, this was only the second time human remains had been found in it. The first time was sixty years ago.

When eventually we were able to lift the bones out of the ground and have a close look at them, we had to rub our eyes in disbelief. The front part of the shinbone appears to have been chopped off and even part of the jawbone looks as if it has been sliced off too.  Reading archaeological bone in this way can be tricky so the bones will need to be examined by a specialist in ancient human bone. Nevertheless, the evidence looks pretty clear, even to us.

The cut mark on the shinbone is the most convincing. The bone is a left tibia where the top front left-hand side has been sliced off with a sharp blade. The blow must have been ferocious and it must have cut through part of the end of the thigh bone (femur) and probably the kneecap (patella) and the fibula (the thin bone alongside the tibia). The angle of the cut suggests that the leg must have been flexed and that the person who cut it wasn’t standing directly in front of him but to his right or left.

The mandible is more difficult to interpret. Now that it is out of the ground, we can see that it does indeed have its third molar and that the person was much older when he died than we thought. What is striking, however, is that the inside edge of the raised part at the back of the jaw is missing. It looks as if this part of the jaw has been sliced off where the bone is quite thin. But the cut looks rather delicate for a sword blow. It may be that the jawbone simply cracked in the ground and this part became detached. But then, in the light of the chop mark on the leg bone, some kind of deliberate incision, violent or delicate, needs to be considered as a possiblity. If the damage was the result of a sword blow, then it must have been a downwards one from the man’s left. The sword must have crashed clean through his left cheek bone (the zygomatic bone) between his left eye and ear so that it just nicked the front of the upper part of his jaw.

So what to make of all this? The bones lay in burnt building debris which had been shovelled and scooped up and moved as part of the post-fire clearance operations. Could the cuts in the bones have been the result of this? Are we looking at damage caused by shovels? Perhaps we are. But then a lot of force would have been needed to cut through the tibia, more than might be expected from somebody shovelling up burnt building debris. And in any case, would shovel blades have been so sharp? The Roman-period historian Cassius Dio tells us that the British took no prisoners but instead killed their enemies, including the women, in the most brutal of ways including ‘arson, the cross and the gibbet’. So, if we assume that the two bones belong to the same person, herein lies the most obvious solution.

Our man fought for his life in one of the buildings which had stood in the immediate area around our site. It was hand-to-hand combat. He may have been one of the small number of troops in the town there to protect it or he could have been one of the veteran soldiers who had settled in the town after retirement. His teeth suggest somebody getting on it life so a veteran seems very plausible. Either way, the man held a shield and presumably a sword. A sword-wielding Briton to his left struck the side of his shield a glancing blow so that the attacker’s sword slid down its surface and caught the edge of  our man’s knee where it stuck out and was unprotected. Severely crippled and in great pain, a second blow caught him on the side of his face smashing part of his skull.  Our man fell to the ground and his body was subsequently consumed in Boudicca’s flames. Way too fanciful? Well, it’s a neat explanation, except that it’s odd that the very two bones which were supposedly damaged have survived and the others have not. Maybe the bodies were hacked to pieces? Surely not! We will have to wait to see what the specialist makes of the bones and see if any more burnt bone turns up in the new area on site….


tibia end missing





The Trust’s excavations at the Williams & Griffin store are being funded by Fenwick Ltd.