Anglo-Saxon skull found with nose and lips cut off is first physical evidence of brutal punishment for adultery

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The girl's skull, which was found in a spoil heap produced during the excavation of a burial site - Antiquity/Antiquity
The girl's skull, which was found in a spoil heap produced during the excavation of a burial site - Antiquity/Antiquity

An Anglo-Saxon skull found in Hampshire with its nose and lips cut off is the first physical evidence of the brutal medieval punishment for adultery.

Remains of the young girl, thought to have been aged between 15 and 18, were discovered during a search of a site in the village of Oakridge, in Basingstoke, in the 1960s.

Her facial injuries (below) included a cut across her mouth and one through the nose which was so deep it sliced through the surrounding bone, archaeologists and scientists have discovered in a fresh analysis of the cranium.

A prominent cut across her forehead also suggests someone had attempted to scalp her.

Gruesome punishments were known to have been part of the legal system in Anglo-Saxon times, with thieving slaves and adulteresses among those who could be mutilated for their crimes.

However, this is the first time physical evidence of such punishments has been uncovered.

Close-ups of the young girl's skull fragments - Antiquity/Antiquity
Close-ups of the young girl's skull fragments - Antiquity/Antiquity

The girl's remains were discovered by chance during a search of the Oakridge site, which was about to have a housing estate built over it.

Archaeologists were given a window of time to scour the area and salvage any historic remains that might be there.

They uncovered evidence of an Iron Age settlement and a Romano-British burial. The girl's skull was found in a spoil heap produced during the excavation of the burial site.

She was found in an isolated area unlikely to be part of an official cemetery, and analysis of her skull indicates she was not living near where she was found.

Archaeologists believe she could have been buried in a remote area far from her home as further punishment, given that banishment was part of some legal codes at the time.

The lack of healing of the wounds on her face suggests she died soon after sustaining them.

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Her skull has now also been dated back to AD 776-899, indicating mutilation as a punishment was happening almost a century earlier than previous analysis of criminal codes had indicated.

Historic records studied by the researchers show that various kings in the medieval period - which lasted from the 5th to the 15th century - sanctioned torture as a way of punishing particular offences.

King Edmund, who ruled in the 10th century, had a law code which listed scourging, removal of the scalp and mutilation of the little finger in combination as the penalty for thieving slaves.

During the reign of King Cnut, the ruler of substantial territories across northern Europe in the 11th century, there was a law code which called for the removal of the eyes, nose, ears, upper lip and scalp for crimes considered worse than theft. It also stipulated the removal of the nose and ears in the case of a woman accused of adultery.

The findings from the analysis of the girl's skull were published in the journal Antiquity.

“This case appears to be the first archaeological example of this particularly brutal form of facial disfigurement known from Anglo-Saxon England,” the archaeologists said in their research.

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