Roman Swords on display

A real Roman Murder Mystery

In the 1970s an excavation within Canterbury’s city walls unearthed something so unusual it remains a mystery to this day.

When archaeologists dug down they discovered the grave of two Roman cavalry soldiers.  However, this was no ordinary grave and suspicions over the cause of death were raised. Unknowingly, archaeologists had just unearthed a real Roman Murder Mystery.

The skeletons of the two men revealed they were about 20 and 30 years of age. They both had two military long swords in their scabbards and were buried head to toe, one on top of another. This was unusual as Roman burials usually took the form of one individual lying full length on their back.

Archaeologists were intrigued as the position of the skeletons suggested that they had been carelessly, perhaps hurriedly, dumped into the grave. The other unusual thing was the cavalrymen were buried with their swords. The two swords seem to have been thrown in after the bodies. Normally after death, a soldier’s weapons would be returned to an armoury. The Roman Army was very strict about the return of such valuable weapons so not returning the swords was unheard of.

The grave was also found inside the city walls, yet official burials in Roman times were made outside the walls, in cemeteries. All the evidence was beginning to suggest the burial may have been the result of a grisly murder or execution.

But how could this be if the skeletons were intact?

Poison or disease then became a possibility. These affect the soft tissue and tend to attack parts of the body other than the skeleton, leaving the bone unmarked.

Then again, if an individual met a violent death caused by a weapon, the bones would not necessarily be hit or cut. Whatever the cause of death all the evidence from this ‘grave’ suggests foul play, or at the very least a ‘cover up’ job…

The Swords

Both are Iron Age long swords (spatha) which were frequently used by auxiliary cavalrymen.  Despite their long hilts, these weapons were probably only held in one hand.

Scientific analysis shows that the decayed sword scabbards, grips and cross-pieces were made of wood (maple and poplar or willow). X-rays show the shorter sword was made from four strips of iron forged together by hammer-welding. The longer sword has a central twisted bar, forged with a backing of plain strip iron.

They date from the 2nd or early 3rd century AD and are rare artefacts.

WHO DID IT? Do you think this is evidence of Roman foul play? The soldiers couldn’t have buried themselves, so who did it? Did they meet their end by a deadly disease or was it the work of a disgruntled Officer…what do you think?

Period  Roman, circa 200 – 300 AD
Location Canterbury
Material Iron
Find me in Canterbury Roman Museum