Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
The Executioner's Moat Volume 57 Number 2, March/April 2004
by David Keys

[image]The remains of at least 60 criminals executed during the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries were found in a medieval moat at Oxford Castle. (Oxford Archaeological Unit Ltd.) [LARGER IMAGE]

Excavations in a medieval moat around Oxford Castle have so far yielded the remains of 60 to 70 criminals, mostly men in their twenties, executed during the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. Archaeologists believe that dozens more await discovery. "This excavation has given us a much greater understanding of the way in which the bodies of executed criminals were treated in postmedieval England," said Andrew Norton, the field archaeologist running the dig.

The victims, all of whom are thought to have been hanged, seem to have been denied a Christian burial. They were interred in unconsecrated ground, and some 20 percent of them were buried face down or on their sides. Most were not buried in a traditional Christian east-west alignment, thus depriving them of the opportunity to rise from the dead facing Jerusalem on the Day of Judgment.

A number of dead had been used for medical instruction or experimentation after death. Three skulls were found with their tops skillfully sawed off, while the neck of another individual had been carefully cut through the seventh vertebra. The bodies may have been used for flesh or muscle dissections, but no archaeological traces have been identified so far. Two sawn-off crania--but not the skulls they were once attached to--were also unearthed.

Historians believe the dissected victims were used by anatomy schools at the University of Oxford's Christ Church College or at the old Ashmolean, most likely under royal license granted during the reigns of Elizabeth I, James I, or Charles I. At that time the Crown allowed four executed criminals a year to be used for academic purposes.

Archaeologists have discovered moving evidence of the pain suffered by the executed. In many cases, their hands were tightly clenched. Two individuals had held onto their own clothes with such tenacity that in one case a button and, in another, a fragment of clothing was found inside their clenched skeletal fists.

Death on the gallows generally occurred by slow strangulation; it would have taken up to a half an hour for a person to die. (Instant death through hanging, by the use of a drop through a trapdoor that broke the condemned person's neck, was only gradually introduced in the late eighteenth century.)

In the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, death sentences were passed for everything from theft and burglary to treason and murder. Apart from holding political prisoners and debtors, prisons were usually used to detain people while they awaited trial; prison sentences were rarely given as punishment. The accused were acquitted about half of the time; of those convicted, half were flogged and the rest hanged.

Interestingly, a few of the executed were female. These women, mostly in their late forties or early fifties, may well have been hanged for witchcraft. Archaeologists have also found the remains of a child about 12 years old who appears to have been hanged and buried face down with the bottom half of his legs bent back as if they had been tied to his upper legs.

© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America