ONCE they were spectacular resting places to honour the dead.
But with pagan Britain's conversion to Christianity, the Bronze Age burial mounds came to be regarded with suspicion as places where devils and dragons lurked.
It was at one such site in East Yorkshire that the Anglo-Saxons chose to bury the worst kind of criminals, away from hallowed ground, leaving their heads to rot on stakes.
The latest archaeological techniques have now thrown a new light on an eerie cemetery – the only one so far discovered north of the Humber – where the decapitated bodies of executed criminals were laid to rest.
The dozen skeletons – 10 without their heads – were discovered by archaeologists in the late 1960s in a Bronze Age barrow at Walkington Wold, sparking
theories that it has been the site of a massacre, a series of
executions or even a Celtic head cult.
But a new study by two Yorkshire archaeologists, involving radiocarbon dating and a re-analysis of the bones, has uncovered gruesome new evidence about how the victims –all men – met their deaths.
Following their re-evaluation, Jo Buckberry, from Bradford University and Dawn Hadley, from Sheffield University have confirmed the site was an execution cemetery, maybe used for as long as 200 years.
Radiocarbon dating places the cemetery at a date several centuries later than originally thought, in the early 11th century.
The men would have been tried by a court, their execution excluding burial in consecrated ground.
Some skulls were found without their jaws, suggesting they were displayed on poles – Anglo Saxon records refer to head stakes or "heafod stokkan" –as a warning to other inhabitants.
Ms Hadley said: "There is no record about who ends up being decapitated or hanged;
I suppose one has to assume they are the worst kind of criminals.
"The Anglo-Saxons seem to prefer to bury their executed dead at the limits away from settlement."
The bones of the men were subjected to a fresh examination as part of the study. Evidence of a "botched decapitation" was found in one case where a young male, aged between 18 and 25 had suffered three blows to the back of his skull, probably when he was bent over with his head resting on his chest.
Three or four others "suffered sharp force trauma to the back of the head/neck region that is consistent with the use of a large bladed weapon, for example an axe or a sword".
Two suffered from cuts to the front of the neck "which can be interpreted as blood-letting, throat slitting or decapitation from the front".
The archaeologists carried out the research as part of a wider study into skeletons from the Anglo Saxon period.
Ms Hadley said they were drawn to the material from Walkington Wold because of the various theories that had been offered about the site over the years. She said: "This is the only known example (of an execution cemetery) north of the Humber and even north of the Wash there aren't many."
Rod Mackey, who first excavated the site along with John Bartlett between 1967 and 1969, said he believed the men were taken just outside the parish boundary – the site is only three-quarters of a mile from the now defunct settlement of Hunsley – to be killed. He added: "It was on the side of the road and on an obvious hill; an obvious place to put a gibbet or gallows right by the roadside where people would be warned.
"Three or four of the skulls were found right at the centre of the mound whereas the bodies were found by the skirt of the mound.
"The skulls had no jaw bones as if they'd dropped off after possibly being displayed in some way.
"When we were digging in the 60s, we spoke to an old farm labourer and told him we'd found all these bodies and he said when he was a lad he knew it as Hell's Gate – suggesting there was a folk memory possibly even existing from that time when it was used as an execution site."