Over 25 years ago near the village of Stanwick in England, an excavation unearthing burials dating back to the Roman occupation of Britain approximately 1500 years, find the skeleton of a man who had his tongue cut out while he was still alive. The mystery is, why would they have done this to him.
A man who lived some 1,500 years ago may have had his tongue cut out, though archaeologists, who found his remains buried with a flat rock in his mouth, are not sure the reason for the possible amputation.
The skeleton was excavated in 1991 near the village of Stanwick in Britain. But it wasn't until recently that a team with Historic England, a public group that promotes England's history, did an in-depth analysis of the skeleton.
The skeleton belongs to a male who was between 25 and 35 years old when he died, they found. When alive, the man suffered a serious oral infection that spread to other parts of his body and led to new bone growth in his mouth and other parts of his skull. A tongue amputation, it is believed could cause just such an infection.
Additionally, the team analyzed several other burials — dating between the third and seventh centuries A.D. — which had been excavated over the past few decades in Britain. They found several burials in which a skeleton's head was missing, likely due to decapitation, and in its place was a rock or pot. In one instance, a skeleton was found with its left foot missing — a pot put in its place.
After analyzing the evidence, they researchers concluded that the flat rock in the man's mouth may have been "a symbolic replacement for [a] tongue that was amputated in this individual during the lifetime of this man".
Why the man's tongue would be cut out is a mystery. Excavation photographs taken in 1991 reveal that the man's skeleton was found face-down with his right arm sticking out at an unusual angle, possible evidence that the man was tied up when he died.
However, Mays said that so far his team has found no evidence in ancient texts that the cutting out of tongues was practiced as a form of punishment when the man was alive — a time when the Romans controlled Britain.
The team also examined modern-day medical literature, looking for more clues. They found that people who are suffering epileptic fits or people suffering from neurological diseases, such as Parkinson's disease or Alzheimer's disease, quite often bite their tongues or bite their lips. However no cases were ever found where the tongue was completely severed.
Certain cases in the modern medical literature describe where people suffering from severe mental illnesses had psychotic episodes and bit off their tongue. As such, the ancient man may have suffered from such an illness. He might have been tied up when he died because people in the community thought of him as a threat.
A version of this article appeared on LiveScience
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