Had the Internet been around 1,700-years-ago, that might have been a quote from a man whose skeleton was later found buried face-down with a flat stone in place of his tongue, which was removed for some reason. Why?
This isn’t something that’s been identified so far in the archaeological records. So it’s identifying a new practice. The fact that he’s buried face down in the grave is consistent with somebody whose behavior marked them out as odd or threatening within a community.
Speaking for the tongue-less skeleton, Dr. Simon Mays, Historic England’s human skeletal biologist, described the discovery of the unusual mutilation and burial in an interview with The Guardian. The corpse – estimated to have been buried in a cemetery in Stanwick in the 3rd or 4th century – was actually discovered in 1991 but the researchers at Historic England (known until 2015 as English Heritage) didn’t get around to studying this particular one until recently. Were they afraid the face-down burial might mean it was a vampire? They’re odd and threatening, right?
There are Germanic law codes which talk about cutting people’s tongues out because they spread malicious accusations against other people. We’re looking into it at the moment, but I don’t know whether there are any Roman laws to that effect.
The Historic England researchers were actually very interested in discovering the reasons for the strange burial but were delayed for years because they’re severely understaffed. Mays says that missing body parts being replaced with stones are highly unusual in Roman Britain burials (only about 10 are known), with a rock in place of a skull being the most common. However, this stone was clearly in the mouth where a tongue would have been … a tongue that appears to have been forcibly removed while the person was still alive.
If you cut somebody’s tongue out, the mouth is full of bacteria and so you’re likely to get an infection. We did indeed find evidence of infection on the bones, so that seems to support the idea.
The face-down burial, often used to keep the corpse of a feared person from rising from the grave, may indicate that this poor soul was mentally ill and could possibly have bitten his own tongue off. Mays says the researchers will attempt to determine if the man came from elsewhere – another possible reason for the unusual burial.
Imagine removing someone’s tongue because they spread malicious accusations against other people. What people say if we had this practice today?