UD: October 2016
Some of the most fascinating archaeological discoveries in recent years have come from the Bronze and Iron Age site at Cliffs End Farm on the Isle of Thanet (Kent), in south-eastern England. Of the wealth of material uncovered at the site most enigmatic is pit #3666, which tells a tale of bizarre ritual practices and human sacrifice.
Sharp weapon trauma to the skull of an elderly female from pit 3666 at Cliffs End (see below)
A large number of cases of “human sacrifice” among the late Bronze and Iron Age European population have been revealed in the past decades at sites ranging from the Celtic (Galatian) settlement of Gordion in today’s Turkey to the Bog Bodies of Northern Europe. In many of these cases evidence indicates that sacrifice was accompanied by complex rituals including manipulation of body parts and excarnation.
Remains of two women ‘ritually sacrificed’ at the Celtic settlement at Gordion (Turkey). The uppermost of the women had suffered blows to the head and a broken neck; large grinding stones had been placed on top of the lower woman (2nd c. BC)
(After Dandoy et al 2002; see: https://balkancelts.wordpress.com/2012/06/10/galatia/)
Two bodies found together in a bog at Drenthe in The Netherlands. Initially their intimate pose led to speculation that they were a man and woman buried in a romantic embrace. Subsequent analysis showed that in fact both were men, one of whom had had his stomach sliced open. (1st c. BC)
Body of a young man (in his early 20’s) found in a bog at Clonycavan (Meath), Ireland (and facial reconstruction).
The man had been ritually sacrificed – disemboweled and struck three times across the head with an axe and once across the body. He also had his nipples cut off. (4/3 c. B C)
Among the other numerous examples of such is the late Iron Age shaft discovered at Holzhausen in Bavaria with a post at the bottom used for impaling victims (the pole when analyzed had traces of human flesh and blood). A similar example comes from Garton Slack in East Yorkshire (England), where a young man and a woman of about thirty were found huddled together in a shaft – a wooden stake between them pinning their arms together. The woman was apparently pregnant, since a fetal skeleton was found beneath her pelvis (Green 1992: 183-84 – Green, M.. J. Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend. New York). Another case from Yorkshire is the decapitated skull of a man in his 30’s discovered in a pit at Heslington. The man had been hanged before being decapitated with a knife during the 6th century BC.
The Heslington Skull
Preserved in oxygen-free clay-rich mud the brain is the oldest preserved example ever found in Europe or Asia, and is believed to be the best-preserved ancient brain in the world.
The aforementioned site at Cliffs End in Kent has once again provided more questions than answers concerning these enigmatic rituals. The first remarkable fact at the site is the distorted demographic structure which includes a disproportionate number of teenagers, the complete absence of children under the age of 6 and, most strikingly, an abnormal male/female ratio, i.e. many more women than men are represented in the burials – the proportion being an inexplicable 71/29 % in the early Iron Age. All 4 ‘elderly’ people (over 45 years of age) were also females.
The mortuary rites at Cliffs End, including manipulation, curation and excarnation of bodies, have their roots in the late Bronze Age, and continue into the Iron Age. The most fascinating example from the former period is pit #3666, in which the orchestrated burial group focused on the body of an old woman who had been slain by multiple sword blows to the back of the head. The woman was subsequently laid out with a piece of white chalk up to her face, her index finger positioned in a pointing position. Two lambs were placed in her lap.
Detail of the elderly female buried in pit #3666
In the same pit, in association with the woman’s body, were placed 2 children and a teenage girl, the teenager’s head and upper body placed over the head and neck of a cow (!). The manipulated body parts of an adult male were also discovered.
View of pit #3666 from the north
(Cliffs End illustrations after McKinley, Jacqueline I., Jörn Schuster, and Andrew Millard, “Dead-Sea connections: a Bronze Age and Iron Age ritual site on the Isle of Thanet”, in: Koch, John T., and Barry Cunliffe (eds), Celtic from the West 2: rethinking the Bronze Age and the arrival of Indo-European in Atlantic Europe, Celtic Studies Publications 16, Oxford, Oakville, CT. 2013. 157–183).
Manipulated body parts of the adult male from pit #3666
The violent death of the elderly woman in pit #3666 is the latest in a long series to be explained by ‘ritual sacrifice’. In fact, this may be only part of the story in such cases, for the extremely brutal nature of many of the slayings clearly suggests an aspect of deliberate cruelty/punishment not consistent with mere sacrifice.
In the late Iron Age the Roman general Caesar (DBG 6:16) claims that those chosen for such fates were those who had “participated in theft or brigandage or other crimes”, i.e. most of those sacrificed by the Celts were criminals, because those are “more pleasing to the immortal gods” (loc cit). While the testimony of classical authors concerning the European ‘barbarian’ population has often tended to be highly inaccurate, this combination of sacrifice/execution would at least partly explain the brutality to be observed in many of these cases, as well as the apparent contradiction between the cruelty inflicted on the victims and the lavish burial rites accorded them, i.e. as a criminal the individual was punished according to the severity of their crime(s), and as a sacrifice to the gods their remains subsequently treated with the utmost respect.
Thus, it appears likely that many of the “human sacrifices” practiced by the European population of this period differ from those carried out by modern societies only in their method of execution…
On the Question of Human Sacrifice among the Celts see also: