Skeleton with backwards feet found in Dorset quarry

Archaeologists excavating Woodsford Quarry in Dorset have unearthed a sarcophagus containing a skeleton whose feet were bent backwards. The sarcophagus, carved out of a single large block of limestone, was found in a grave 5’11” long, 1’10” inches and just one foot deep. Initial osteological examine found the skeleton was that of a young man in his 20s or 30s who was about 5’10” tall. There are no indications from the bones of disease or possibly fatal trauma.

Hills Quarry Products contracted Thames Valley Archaeological Services (TVAS) to survey the Woodsford site and excavations have been ongoing for years. At least 11 othr burials have been found at the quarry, but because the soil is highly acidic, no human remains survived. The solid limestone coffin protected these bones from the ravages of the environment, although its lid is long gone, probably destroyed by farming activity which archaeologists have found evidence of going back 4,000 years to the Bronze Age.

Director of TVAS, Dr Steve Ford, explained why this was such a significant find. He said: “In the Roman period, burial in a sarcophagus was moderately common in Italy but very unusual in Britannia, where even wooden coffins seem to have been rare.

“A stone sarcophagus was certainly a very prestigious item, and their distribution across the country is restricted. Only around 100 are known and it is believed that this might be only the 12th to come from Dorset, with 11 others all from Poundbury.

“It is possible that the practice reflects a folk memory of a longer tradition in the South West, however, where stone lined cist burials can be traced back to the New Stone Age around 3000 BC.

“In fact, this sarcophagus may have been reused, as it was several centimetres too short for the corpse, whose feet had to be tucked under him.”

The skeleton will be subjected to further testing to determine if possible the cause of death and a burial date. After analysis is complete, the skeleton, sarcophagus and other artifacts from the Late Iron Age through the Roman era (1st century B.C. to the 5th century A.D.) discovered at the site will be donated by the landowner to the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester.

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Comment by RMW
2016-09-25 15:22:05

Possible club-feet? My father was born with one (pre-Ponseti) and spend most of his childhood with leg braces and had repair surgery (twice) as an adult, leaving him with foot arthritis his entire adult life.

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Comment by Annie Delyth
2016-09-25 17:08:58

Quotes from the article linked to:

“… the skeleton of a Roman man who had his feet bent backwards to fit in his coffin”
“…this sarcophagus may have been reused, as it was several centimetres too short for the corpse, whose feet had to be tucked under him.”

According to the article, the analysis of the bones has not been completed yet, but the anthropologists state that the bones were normal and show no signs of disease (as livius stated). Apparently, he was just a bit too long for the recycled coffin, and was kind of twisted to fit into the coffin. His entire torso, hips and legs show the twisting.

Though it would be interesting if the analysis showed some strange deformation from life, I kind of think the simple explanation is the right one.

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Comment by karlsdottir
2016-09-26 13:06:19

Pity. No grave goods to tell us what, besides his height, puts him head and shoulders above the hoi polloi.

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Comment by Benny
2016-09-26 15:23:00

The ‘Spitalfields Woman’, if I remember correctly, had been found in a coffin. With 180cm, however, our man is rather tall.

Woodsford is seemingly 5km to the east of Durnovaria/ Dorchester, while a Roman/ Early Christian cemetery was found directly to the west in what is now Poundbury. Thus, if the sarcophagus had been re-used, it might originate from Poundbury.

What else might have been to the east of Dorchester ? Another cemetery (those ’11 other burials’) ? A villa, maybe ? Possibly an early medieval one ? What do the locals say ? How old is the quarry ? Is the limestone maybe from there ?

Keep us updated :love:

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Comment by Maaiqe
2016-09-26 18:59:57

Yeah well the theory on reuse of the sarcophagus does make some sense.. however, although I’m not an expert on burying dead bodies, I can’t imagine that it’d be easy to tuck the feet under a dead body, especially considering the rigor mortis or starting decomposition..
Unless, of course, it’s some kind of reburial or something like that. I hope they’ll be able to find out more!

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Comment by BruceT
2016-09-28 22:22:00

I agree Annie.

I remember my grandmother telling me about coffins running short during the Flu Pandemic of 1918. As she lived in a town that was home to a govt. munitions plant, they had infrequent shipments of surplus standard military coffins coming in to handle the overflow of victims when they could get them. They had to work on a “one size fits all” basis with the dead when using them. Taller than average folks were fit into the things as best as possible, including removing the feet at the ankles if need be. The severed parts would generally be put into the coffin with the deceased in a convenient spot.

5’10” was quite tall for the Roman period. If it was a reused sarcophagus and there was a need, he was likely stuffed in as best as possible.

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Comment by Rob
2017-03-24 04:20:53

Until a few years ago there was a stone sarcophagus built into the wall of Himeji Castle in Japan. In the Chikatsu-Asuka Historical Museum in Osaka there are some extraordinary stone sarcophagi, very finely and massively shaped, that are of some ancient and unknown origin. Also in that region there is the remains of at least one “neolithic” barrow type construction with massive monoliths used to form the now exposed chamber. Just some more “OOPARTS” that are yet to understood.

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