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Scupi graves

(Courtesy Lence Jovanova)

The Roman colony of Scupi in northern Macedonia is the most thoroughly excavated ancient site in the country. Thus archaeologists were shocked when, in fall 2011, they uncovered a completely unknown mass grave on the periphery of the settlement's largest necropolis. By the time they had to stop digging in mid-December due to weather, project leader Lence Jovanova and her team had identified at least 180 adult male skeletons that had been tossed into a pit a foot and a half deep. Many had been decapitated and most had their arms bound behind their backs. Some of the bones show the marks of extreme violence such as cutting and breakage. "It was a terrible sight, like a modern massacre," says Jovanova. When archaeologist Phil Freeman of the University of Liverpool, who specializes in Roman battlefield archaeology, saw images of the excavation, he says his jaw dropped. "The only thing I can think of that is comparable to this is the Vilnius, Lithuania, mass grave from 1812," he remarks, referring to the find 10 years ago of 2,000 well-preserved corpses of French soldiers killed during Napoleon's retreat from Russia ("Digging Napoleon's Dead," September/October 2002). Jovanova says she can find no comparisons for the site.

Why the men were killed remains a mystery. "All we know is that they died violent deaths. Maybe they were executed. It could have been a war or conflict," Jovanova says, adding that she thinks that whatever did happen occurred near the town, explaining why the victims were buried in the main necropolis. Freeman believes that a mass military execution is the likely scenario. With civil executions, the victims' heads were often placed at the corpses' feet, he explains. None of the Scupi skeletons were found this way.

Freeman further notes that the grave is not likely the result of a battlefield event. The repeated evidence for decapitation suggests the victims were killed after, not during, battle. It is possible that the mass killing could be linked to the conflicts destabilizing the Roman Empire during the late third to early fourth centuries A.D., according to Jovanova. Freeman agrees that the empire's intense political instability, as different armed factions fought to bring their preferred leader to the emperor's throne, could be tied to the grave in some way. "Our natural tendency is to see the archaeology as simply adjunct to the historical sources," Freeman says. "Since something dates to the first century, for example, it has to fit into a known first-century event. That assumption is made time and time again." But he calls it "a dangerous game" to attempt to match such dramatic finds with known military episodes. Although this may come as a surprise to many, Freeman stresses that there is still a great deal of Roman history that is unknown.

necropolisFeature: Burial Customs

Matthew Brunwasser is a freelance writer living in Istanbul.