Archaeological – Anthropological and Forensic Research of the Skeletons from the Mass Burial Site at the Southeastern Necropolis of Scupi

I Archaeological Finds

The history of Skopje in the Roman period is identified with the history of the colony of Scupi. It is located in the Skopje plain at 5 km to the west of the city, near the village of Zlokukani on the southwest slope of Zajcev Rid, to the left of the river Lepenec.

By the surface (44 Ha), Scupi is one of the larger Roman towns in the Balkans. It is the largest Roman town in Republic of Macedonia and the only one with the distinction of a Roman colony – the highest self-governing status that a provincial Roman city can receive. Its existence marks the first time in the history of this area that a true town with all urban and civilization characteristics is constructed.

skupi panorama scupi-termi i ulica cardo

It is confirmed that continuous existence of life on the territory of Scupi stretches from the Bronze and Iron age (from XII to VI century BC). The beginnings of the city are connected with the presence of the Roman legions there at the beginning of the I century BC. The lack of archaeological and epigraphic evidence leaves the question about the state of the basic agglomeration as a legionary camp or civil habitat in the I century BC. A more intensified colonization began after the formation of the province of Moesia in 15 AD.
Later, during the Flavian period (69-96 AD), probably during the reign of Domitian (81-96 AD) the status of the original settlement has been raised to a self-governing deductive colony (Colonia Flavia Scupiorum) by she settlement of the veterans, mostly from the Seventh (Claudia) Legion, that ware rewarded for their services by a land grand at the territory of Scupi.

The colony of Scupi is located in the southern part of the province of Upper Moesia (Moesiae Superior) at the intersection of the two main Balkan roads. One that goes from the north to south connects the Danube via the Morava-Vardar valley with the Aegean and the other that goes from west to east and connects the Adriatic and the Black Sea. Than enabled the original settlement in a short period of time to transform itself into a complex roman town with all civil and religious buildings appropriate to the new conditions. In the next period (the early and middle imperial period) the town developed rapidly and becomes an important administrative, religious and transit center. In the II century AD, the Roman geographer Ptolomy mentions the town as one of the four largest in Dardania.
After the relatively peaceful period of prosperity and bliss (in the age of Marco Aurelius), in the 170 AD, Scupi couldn’t escape the insurrection of the Dacian tribe of Kostobuki towards the Aegean. This event was the probable cause for the construction of the first stone wall of the town.

scupi,statueta na mlado momce,Apolon-II vek scupi-teatar


The town suffered catastrophic consequences towards the end of the III century AD, connected with the insurrection of the powerful Gothic and Hereulic war bands in the period of 268-269 AD. This date is a turning point in the history and the development of the town that from now on has to cope with the barbarian attacks from the north.
After the administrative and military reforms of Diocletian (284-305), Scupi becomes a metropolis of the newly founded province of Dardania.

The emperor Theodosius (379-395 AD) during his stays at Scupi (in 379 and 388 AD) issued two imperial edicts. During the IV century Scupi housed a military unit (Pseudo Comitates —-) that was under the command of the chief military commander of the prefecture Iliricum, suggesting that the town had a need of strengthened defense arrangement, since it was exposed to the increasingly more frequent attacks of the barbarian tribes from the northeast. The dominant role was played by the Goths that in the IV and V centuries engage in numerous destructive insurrections in the Balkan region. Also, Scupi probably did not escape the furious destructive invasions of the Huns in 441 and 447.
In the late antiquity, Scupi was a part of a Christian world as a powerful religious center. In the period between the IV and VI century Scupi was confirmed as a bishops residence and eparchy since the bishop of Scupi was the head of all the other bishops of the province of Dardania.
In 518, Scupi was devastated by an earthquake. However its citizens left the town before that event and took refuge in the surrounding refugee keeps running from the barbarians. This however was not the end of the town. The outside factor that brought the end about was the new wave of barbarian insurrections – the Slavs the Kuthigurs and the Avars, that devastated the Balkans during the entire VI century.

panorama od skupi Venera od Skupi - II vek


The new historical conditions, the severe impoverishment, the social changes and the numerous migrations lead to demographic changes during the V and VI century. These changes also brought about a change in the development and the structure of cities by their barbarization, disintegration and rural tendencies. The expression of these processes is evident in the archaeological finds from Scupi that declined from a sophisticated urban center to a rural settlement. After the modest reconstruction in the VI century, the urban and organized life stopped towards the end of the VI century during the time of Emperor Maurice (582/3). However, the archaeological finds point that the life in this area (although on a smaller scale) continued until the early medieval period (X-XI century).

Scupi had a population of mixed and complex ethnic origin as well as social structure. The Roman population consists for the most part of military veterans from the provinces of today Italy, Dalmatia, Istria, France, Spain, Syria and are by rule on important civil, priestly and municipal functions. There is also a presence of Romanized population (Hellenized Orientals) from Asia Minor and also settlers from Macedonia, Aegean region and Thrace). The dominant stratum was the Romanized autochthonous population that has elements of the older Paeonian substratum but also Dardanian and Thracian components.

Scupi had a city council consisting of the most prominent members of the municipal aristocracy. At the top of the city government were two leaders/mayors (duumviri). The high officers were also the Aediles that ware concerned with public safety and order, public hygiene, food supplies, overseeing of public works etc. The control of the public finances was in the hands of the Quaestors. The religious matters ware in the hands of the Augures and Pontifexes while the Imperial cult was maintained by a society of Augustales. Numerous merchants, small municipal officers, craftsmen as well as the commoners lived within the city. The population consisted of free citizens, freedman and slaves with different levels of rights and obligations.

cardo i juzen decuman - 2007 PB010047


The bulwark walls had a shape of uneven rectangular form (44 Ha). The town is planed in accordance withy the orthogonal system. The streets are parallel (SW-NE-NW/SE) and touch the city walls at 90 degrees angle. This means that there are two main streets: Cardo Maximus and Decumanus Maximus as well as a network of smaller streets parallel with them (cardines and decumani) that form the city blocks (insulae). They were paved with massive stone plates. The sidewalks are separated from the street by margins and covered with portics. Under and parallel to the streets are the drainage canals for the dirty water as well as a complex network of clay and lead pipes for clean water. Throughout its historical development the town maintains the same basic urban structure and outline. However the size of the city blocks changed over time.

The urban characteristics, the infrastructure and high communal lifestyle (water supply system, sewerage, paved network of streets, public baths, floor heating, floor mosaics, painted walls, glass windows) put this town at the highest civilization level of the Roman provincial cities. By the level of excavation, the urban appearance of Scupi today is mainly the one from the period of late antiquity (end of III-VI century).
Several complexes of buildings have been partially or completely excavated: the theatre (an impressive structure with excavated contours of the scene, theatre building and the audience with luxury marble decoration, belongs to the roman type of theatres and was constructed during the time of Hadrian, II century), horeum (a large public structure with profane purpose – a warehouse, end of III-IV century), city villa – domus (private residential building with luxury fresco decorated walls and floor heating, III-IV century), civil basilica (a monumental public building with luxury marble decoration and a mosaic floor, IV century), public bath (a public structure with floor heating and parts for cold and warm bathing, IV-V century), tri-naval early Christian basilica with three apses to the east and an atrium to the west (V-VI century), large thermal structure (III-V century, part of the southeastern wall from the IV century, micro-residential complex (private residences, VI century), several structures with undefined purpose and a part of the street network (parts of the two main streets).

pseudo kapitel

Outside of the bulwark walls at all four sides, are located the municipal necropolises and other adjoining buildings. Around 5000 graves ware excavated (I-IV century) from the southeast and northwest necropolis.

Southeast necropolis of Scupi

The largest and most extensively excavated necropolis of Scupi is the one on the southeastern side. It encompasses an area of 30 ha, starting from the eastern wall and stretching 1 km to the east.
It is a multilayered site with many layers and several different cultural horizons (from the Bronze Age to the middle of the IV century). There are three distinct necropolises within:

  1. Necropolis with bi-ritual burial from the transitional period (late Bronze Age – early Iron Age) XIII-X BC.
  2. Necropolis with skeletal burial from the Iron Age (VIII-VI BC)
  3. Necropolis from the Roman period with bi-ritual burials in the early Roman period (I-III AD) and only skeletal burials from late antiquity (end of the III – early IV AD).
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The necropolis from the Roman period

According to the roman regulations the necropolis was planed from two sides (north and south) from the Roman road that (from the east) lead to Scupi from Stobi and directly connected the main city road (decumanus). In the beginning (the early Roman period – I to II century), the graves ware placed in a uniform distance from the road. The zones nearer the road ware reserved for the burial of the upper strata citizens and have in them sarcophagi and family memorials. The placement of the necropolis is to the north (south of the road) and is the main point of organization and orientation of the grave parcels. Later (III – IV centuries), because of the scarcity of the available space, an retroactive process is evident – the graves are concentrated nearer the road.

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The long time span of continual burial from the early Roman period to the period of late antiquity, the multi-layered nature of the burials and their concentration point to the attractiveness of the space during the time of its use.
The numerous typological types of the graves as well as the grave rituals, the different grave offerings give this necropolis a special place of importance for the archaeology and the history of Scupi.


In the early Roman period (I-III century) there is a presence of bi-ritual burial (cremation and inhumation) with large variety of types and variants and with different elements of grave architecture, variety of burial customs as well as numerous grave offerings. The cremation burials are well known from the Scupi necropolis by their ritual and typology. The characteristic features are the regular or etage pits with sealed walls in which the remains are placed along with burial gifts. The common feature of the both types of graves is the separation of the place of cremation with the place of burial. Both types of burial have numerous sub-types based on the manner of covering the remains on the stake (uncovered, covered with flat of saddled roof, build chamber above the pit on the second floor etc.)
The graves are organized in parallel lines with approximately same orientation and with few penetrations inside each others space. The most frequent burial gifts are common utilitarian objects such as various forms of pottery, lamps, glass objects, coins, jewelry, parts of clothing and other practical objects.


Parallel with the cremation there is a practice of inhumation. The grave orientation is inline with the general scheme of the organization of the necropolis. The graves rarely penetrate each other space much like the cremation graves. The earliest skeletal graves date from the end of the I century. The inhumation is gradual and is intensified during the II and III century with a total dominance achieved during the IV century. This phenomenon is a long and complex cultural – demographic process that is conditioned by the new influx of settlers from the east and the economic, social and religious changes in the society at large.


The inhumation consists of the following types: regular grave pits, wooden casket, grave pit with saddled or regular roof, cist construction, walled construction, lead or stone sarcophagus. The most frequent grave gifts are the coins (in the mouth or in the palm) while the other grave gifts (ceramics, glass, lamps, jewelry) are placed on the outside or on top of the grave construction.



Grave with mass burial – G 2694


During the archaeological excavations of 2011, on the eastern periphery of the necropolis, a grave was found that contained mass burial. During the same excavations a burial ditch was discovered with uneven semicircular shape that contained approximately 180 to 200 skeletons. The final number of deceased was not confirmed because the ditch goes inside the next parcel with unclear property rights. The ditch is partially dug in the yellow clay (a sterile archaeological soil) and partially in the ancient waste pit that was used for the waste from the necropolis. The content and the composition of the waste pit indicates that it was an open space used for the purposes of the necropolis for a long period of time (I-III AD) in which both organic and un-organic waste was stored from the post burial rituals and from the destroyed graves. There is a noticeable absence of the construction waste from the grave architecture as well as human bones. The discovered movable material from the depot can be dated in the I-III century which means that the terminus post quem for the mass burial is the second half of the III century.


The basic disposition of the deceased is in direct correlation to the shape of the burial site. Because of that the bodies ware carelessly placed in different directions and usually in two rows (on top of each other). Later, the skeletons started to intertwine with each other later on because of their decomposition and because of the ground activities. The deceased were placed in different positions: on their back or stomach and rarely on their sides. Large number of them had their hands tied behind their backs and some of them had their legs tied as well. Most of the skeletons have unnatural positions of their sculls and limbs which speak to a violent execution of the deceased. The place and the manner of the burial, their placement and direction say that the deceased ware killed and later buried en masse in this mass grave. The place of the execution is impossible to determine in this phase of the research but it is safe to assume that it was near the burial site.
The location of the mass grave on the eastern periphery of the necropolis clearly indicates intent to isolate it from its official section. The manner of the burial and the direction of the bodies is a proof of a social rejection of the deceased and some sort of excommunication from the local community.
The lack of movable objects in the grave makes the chronological definition more difficult but the indirect finds (in the waste pit) point out to the period of the end of the III and the beginning of the IV century.


II Anthropological research

Thirty out of 184 skeletons from the mass grave no. 2694 (no. 11-40) were analyzed with anthropological and forensic methods.

  1. Skeletal finds


The skeletons were excavated in different positions at minimum of two levels (Picture 1)

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Picture 1. Mass grave no. 2694: skeletons no. 11-26

They ware mostly placed on their back (20 skeletons) than on their stomach (7 skeletons) and rarely on their sides (3 skeletons).
The head is mostly towards south (19 skeletons), and 6 have a head directed towards north (Picture 2). The limbs are mostly stretched by the body. In rare cases the legs are spread out and the arms are raised.
7 skeletons have their arms tied to the back. Skeletons no. 16 and 20 probably had their legs tied as well.

Picture 2. Mass grave no. 2694: skeletons no. 26-40

Three skeletons lack sculls (no. 11, 25, 39). Six of them have sculls in very un-natural position (no. 12, 14,15, 34, 35, 40).

  1. Used Methodology


Sex and age were determined. The craniums and the long bones were measured. The epi-genetic variations and the pathological traces on the skeletons were followed.

  1. Results
    • Paleo-demographic characteristics


Every skeleton is male. The age is from 15 to 45 years.
The biggest part (77%) of them were adults (21-40 years). Nearly half of them (47%) are between 30 and 40. Three skeletons war of minors (15-21) while four are 40- 45 years old (10%).
The average age is 33.7 years.

    • Anthropological – morphological characteristics


20 craniums were measured. Three skeletons did not have skulls, seven were deteriorated beyond reconstruction.
The average value of the width-length cranial index has medium value (78,11) but it is not representative of the group structure. In fact, 50% of the skulls are short and brachycranic. The medium long (mesocranic) and the short (dolichocranic) skulls are represented by 25% each.
The height is determined for all the adult skeletons (in total 27 of them). The average height is 171,0 cm that indicates high level of growth. The range is from 165,5 to 177,0 cm. The percentage of people with average height was 22%.
From the anthropological stand point the most common type is Mediterranean and Dinaro- Mediterranean. There are very few representatives of the Dinaric or Nordic anthropological type (Table I). One skull (No. 13) has certain mongoloid characteristics.
The average body height is considerable higher compared to the other necropolises of Scupi. The mass grave group is 3 cm higher than their male counterparts from the eastern necropolis and 4 cm higher than the males from the western necropolis.

Table 1: Average values of the cranial width-length index and body height of the four necropolises from Roman time in Macedonia (male):




Body Height (cm)

2694 Scupi




Eastern necropolis – Scupi




Western necropolis – Scupi













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The finds (skeletons) have no similarities with the synchronic but on average brachycranic skeletons from the middle Vardar region, Stobi and Marvinci.

    • Paleo-pathological profile of the group


The group contains numerous pathological finds. The dominant ones are: ante-mortem trauma, birth anomalies and dental irregularities. Rarely we can find several infections and bone tumors. The anemia can be found in only few cases.

      • Ante-mortem trauma


Ante-mortem fractures of the skull and the long bones are found in half of the skeletons.
Trauma of the cranium is represented by fractures of the neuro-cranium (usually on the frontal and parietal bones) and fractures on the nose bones (Picture 3).

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a. Skeleton no. 35                                                b. Skeleton no. 40
Picture 3. Ante-mortem trauma of the crania


From the long bones, the most common are the fractures on the forearm are by two radiuses and two ulnas. In one case the two bones of the right forearm are broken. That’s the only skeleton that also contains fracture of the fibulae (Picture 4).

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Picture 4. Fracture of a fibulae, radius and ulna, skeleton no. 39

There are also fractures of the tibia, metacarpal bone and ribs.
Every fracture was well treated except the fractures of the metacarpal bone.
Micro-stress fractures and the traces of profession are especially common for the group (picture 5).

26 teret.jpg 20 intervert.diskop..jpg
а. Skeleton no. 26 (Poirier facet)                       b. Skeleton no. 20 (Schmorls node)
Picture 5. Traces of micro stress

The complete epifisiolisys or fissures of the elbow of the fifth lumbalic vertebra, presence of compression of the inter-vertebral discs (Schmorls node), tightening of the bodies at the toracic and lumbalaic vertebra and the widening of the joint area of the heads of the femurs (Poirier facet) is present at all but one skeleton.
It is surprising to find that scoliosis of the spine is very common. Of the four cases one is possibly inflicted with scoliosis from birth (it has a cuneiform vertebra), the rest are probably acquired (Picture 6).

16 skolioza.jpg 17 skolioza.jpg
а. Skeleton no. 16                           b. Skeleton no. 17
Picture 6. Scoliosis and tightening of toracic vertebra


These finds point out towards carrying of heavy load and probably one sided placement of that load.

      • From the birth defects, the most common is the spina bifida (picture 7), the sacrum (seven skeletons), lumbalization and multiple-partite sternum. Individual finds include extra (lumbal) ribs, synosthosis of ribs and bi-partite patella.


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Picture 7. Spinae bifidae, skeleton no. 18

3.3.3. Impacted teeth (with or without primary teeth) in the jaws are found in three skeletons (picture 8). There are cases of more than the normal amount of teeth (third incisive of the right maxilla). Diastema between the incisive in the maxilla and uneven frontal part in the mandibulae are especially common.

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а. Skeleton no. 16 – impacted I2      b. Skeleton no. 13 – over numbered I2
Picture 8. Dental irregularities

      • Bone tumors are represented with exostosis of tibiae, femurs and humeri. Small compact osteomae are found in the frontal sinuses of two skeletons.
      • The infectious changes of the bones (periostitis and ostitis) are found on 6 tibiae and 2 femurs. They are to be confirmed with the additional research.


III Forensic Analysis

  1. Points of the analysis:


  1. Determining the existence of antemortem and perimortem injuries
  2. Determining the way in which the injuries were inflicted
  3. Determining the type of injuries
  4. Determining the cause of death
  1. Material and methods


The analysis was conducted on 30 skeletons that were in good condition and relatively intact and mostly complete. The anthropological character