History

Skeleton Found With a Stone in Place of a Missing Tongue

The 1,700-year-old skeleton found in England belonged to a man in his 30's, but the reason for the gruesome excision remains a mystery.

<p>Credit: Historic England.<span></span></p>

British researchers have identified a unique deviant burial of a skeleton with a stone in place of the tongue.

The body part had apparently been cut off and replaced with a flat stone wedged into the mouth.

Belonging to a male individual in his 30's, the 1,700-year-old skeleton was found in 1991 at a cemetery in Stanwick, in Northamptonshire, UK.

"When we dug it up we realized he had a stone in the mouth, so we lifted the skull in a block of soil. Only now we had the opportunity to study the remains in a laboratory and in controlled conditions," Simon Mays, human skeletal biologist at Historic England, told Seeker.

The skeleton dates to the 3rd or 4th century A.D., when England was part of the Roman empire.

The man was interred face down - a position found in many deviant burials. The custom was used across societies to humiliate the dead.

In most cases, prone burials were linked to the belief that the soul left the body through the mouth. Burying the dead face-down was a way to prevent the impure soul from escaping and then threatening the living.

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According to Caroline Ahlström Arcini, author of the first global study on facedown burials, such burials are not as rare as it may seem and have occurred across the word from 26,000 years ago up to the early 20th century.

In her 2009 survey, Arcini recorded at least 600 bodies who had suffered the indignity of a facedown burial from 215 grave sites.

Such data suggests the phenomenon is "a conscious act, a deep-seated form of human behavior occurring in all cultures and religions," Arcini said. "There is a clear pattern indicating that prone burials were used for those who were different," she wrote.

Facedown burials have been found in England in late Roman and early Saxon cemeteries. Yet, according to the researchers, the skeleton from Stanwick is pretty unique.

"We couldn't find anything similar in the archaeological record. The closest we could get is the case of two skeletons from the same period and a different part of England which were found with nails into the mouth," Mays said.

The same cemetery that held the skeleton with the stone in place of the tongue featured other deviant burials.

"We found decapitated skeletons whose heads were replaced by stones and pots," Mays said.

The man was interred face down - a position found in many deviant burials. Credit: Historic England

"It appeared clear the flat stone was a replacement for a body part because it had been put in the front of the mouth where the tongue ought to be," he added.

Evidence of infection on the jaw bones supports the theory that the tongue was amputated in life.

"The mouth is full of bacteria so if a tongue is cut out, an infection is likely to arise," Mays said.

Signs of active infection in the bones indicates the tongue was likely severed months or even weeks before death.

"He probably died because of the infection following amputation of the tongue," Mays said.

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The reason for the gruesome excision remains a mystery. It may have been an act of punishment, following Germanic laws which ruled amputation of the tongue for those who made false accusations about other people.

However, it is not known whether there were similar Roman practices.

The other possibility is that the man bit his own tongue.

"It's something you find in people who suffer from severe mental illness," Mays said.

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It is also unknown why the tongue was replaced with a flat stone.

Mays and colleagues believe the replacement was either a symbolic act to make the body complete again or a way to prevent the corpse from becoming complete.

"In this case the stone would have impeded a replacement of a living body part. They wanted to be sure the corpse didn't continue to behave as it did in life," Mays said.

Mays and his team will carry out further investigations in the coming months. The research will include stable isotope studies to find out if the man was local to the area or came from elsewhere.

"Such studies may help us to understand this burial and may lead to us revising our interpretations," Mays said.