Were these Iron Age skeletons victims of human sacrifice?
The remains just discovered in Oxfordshire date from about 3,000 years ago and challenge our ideas about the past
Iron Age skeletons dug up during work on a new water pipeline may have been the victims of ritual human sacrifice, archaeologists believe.
About 26 human skeletons were found in pits at Childrey Warren, near Wantage, Oxfordshire, alongside evidence of dwellings, animal carcasses and household items including pottery, knives and a decorative comb.
The remains date from about 3,000 years ago, before the Romans had invaded Britain, and the people were probably linked to the well-known Uffington white horse, a prehistoric figure carved into a nearby hillside.
Few graves survive from the period because most communities engaged in “sky burials”, with bodies allowed to decompose naturally in the open or scavenged by animals. But the skeletons were found buried in small pits, suggesting they were part of a ritual or even human sacrifice.
Neil Holbrook, chief executive of Cotswold Archaeology, who carried out the excavation on behalf of Thames Water, said: “The new Thames Water pipeline provided us with an opportunity to examine a number of previously unknown archaeological sites. The Iron Age site at Childrey Warren was particularly fascinating as it provided a glimpse into the beliefs and superstitions of people living in Oxfordshire before the Roman conquest.
“Evidence elsewhere suggests that burials in pits might have involved human sacrifice. The discovery challenges our perceptions about the past, and invites us to try to understand the beliefs of people who lived and died more than 2,000 years ago.”
Previous studies have shown that Iron Age communities sometimes carried out ritual burials in pits, often exhuming the dead in later years. Archaeologists also believe the body of “Lindow Man”, a skeleton found in a bog near Wilmslow in Cheshire, was the victim of human sacrifice. He had eaten the sacred plant mistletoe shortly before being bludgeoned to death and having his throat slit.
At the Iron Age hill forts of Danebury and South Cadbury, bodies were also found in the foundations, which were supposedly sacrificed before the construction. Archaeologists have also found that a wide variety of animals were killed ritualistically, with the ancient Britons favouring the slaughter of horses and dogs to appease their gods.
The new graves and settlement were discovered while Thames Water was preparing to lay new water pipes. Cotswold Archaeology has removed the items for forensic examination, allowing Thames Water to start laying the 6km pipe.
Paolo Guarino, Cotswold Archaeology project officer, added: “These findings open a unique window into the lives and deaths of communities we often know only for their monumental buildings, such as hillforts or the Uffington White Horse. The results from the analysis of the artefacts, animal bones, the human skeletons and the soil samples will help us add some important information to the history of the communities that occupied these lands so many years ago.”
– Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)