Friday 20 November 2009

Thames skulls

On Saturday, I went to the Thames Discovery Project's Foreshore Forum. We had a great day of discussions and some fascinating lectures including one on skulls found in the Thames.

Large numbers of skulls have been found in the river over the years, particularly during the nineteenth century. The Thames was regularly dredged, and while much of the material was used to build the embankments, it was first carefully sifted for skulls - Victorian collectors would pay good money for them.

However, how had these human bones - many prehistoric - got there? We still don't know for sure, but Yvonne Edwards of UCL's Institute of Archaeology explored the possible answers. There are two competing theories: that the skulls were deliberately placed there for ritual reasons, or that they are from entire bodies which entered the river through accident, suicide or murder.

What evidence suggests that these skulls had a ritual purpose?
  • Some of the skulls have been found among deliberately-deposited weapons;
  • There have been large concentrations of skulls found in certain areas;
  • Other bones from the skeleton were not found with them;
  • There is evidence which may suggest that flesh had been deliberately removed from some skulls.
What about the accidental/violent death theory?
  • The lack of associated bones is best explained by the way that bodies behave in the river. The head is relatively heavy and not strongly attached to the rest of the body, so it can soon detach once in the water. The jawbone also soon separates. The movement of the river then ensures that if it doesn't quickly settle in the silt, the skull is transported away from the rest of the skeleton.
  • If the skulls had been placed ritually with weapons, we would expect a higher than usual ratio of male remains. However, the sex ratio is more or less the same as for contemporary drownings in the Thames.
  • The varied condition of skulls found in the Thames indicates that many had moved in the river. Where they were found, then, may tell us more about river movement than about where the bones entered the water.
The second theory, then, is the more likely one for most Thames skulls. There is also a third explanation for some: that their original riverside burial sites have been eroded. However these skulls came to be in the Thames, though, they still fascinate us today just as they fascinated those Victorian collectors.

1 comment:

Minnie said...

Gruesome but incredibly informative - thank you for detailing all the possible reasons. It wouldn't have occurred otherwise that some of the skulls might have dated back so far.