Archaeologists excavating a site in the Yorkshire village of Pocklington, UK, have discovered two very unusual graves. The first is a young warrior, who apparently died of natural causes but was subsequently stabbed and clubbed in what experts think may have been an attempt to keep his body and soul forever locked into the afterlife. The second is an elderly – and seemingly high status – man laid to rest in a chariot alongside two (headless) horses.
The Pocklington site dates back to the Iron Age, a period of history that (in Britain) lasted from around 800 BCE to 43 CE and the arrival of the Romans. Almost 100 burials have been discovered at this site but these particular graves would have been made sometime in the third century BCE, experts say.
A thorough analysis of the young man, who archeologists say was between 17 and 23 years old at time of death, reveals he "died" two (or more times). After succumbing to natural causes, the man was stabbed in a ritualistic manner a total of nine times. Five times by spears with iron tips and four times by spears with bone tips. Archaeologists say he was also hit with a possibly lethal knock to the head with a club-like weapon.
Why? Unknown, but experts have thrown up a couple of theories.
It could be that the ritual was performed out of respect. The man was clearly a warrior but he died of natural causes, not in the field. To give him a death befitting his status as a fighter, it may be that his dead body was given the honor of a warrior's death, archeologists say. Or, more gruesomely, he may have been put in the ground alive before being ritually murdered. It would not be the first example of an Iron Age homicide (charmingly-named "bog bodies"), even if this particular example was not found buried in a bog. However, archeologists reckon this is less likely. The position of the buried body (like a fetus) and the lack of defensive wounds suggest it was not murder.
Alternatively, the intention of the ritual may have been to ensure the young man remained dead – an act performed out of an Iron Age superstition of "vampire"-like beings. The modern conception of a vampire (think Dracula's slicked-back hair, Victorian attire, and gaunt appearance, rather than sparkly) may be a relatively recent invention but the roots of vampirism and blood-sucking demons more generally can be traced all the way back to ancient times. In Umbria, Italy, for instance, archaeologists recently unearthed the remains of a fifth-century child buried with a rock in their mouth to prevent any supernatural activity.
Paula Ware from MAP Archaeological Practice told the Yorkshire Post she believes the ritual was performed to "release the youngster's spirit" out of respect from the community.
"We will never know because there was no written word and we can only speculate," she added.
The second grave, just 55 meters (180 feet) away, reveals the bones of a man who had been in his sixties or seventies when he died. The man was buried in a chariot, dressed in his clothes and an elaborate gold broach and laid alongside a shield of wood, leather, and bronze – as well as half a dozen or so pig bones, presumably eaten during his funeral feast. Most strangely of all, are the two headless horse skeletons attached to the chariot. Because of their standing position, archeologists think they were buried alive until they could no longer move. At this point, they think the animals were decapitated. The heads may have been put on top of the burial to keep guard.
The BBC's archaeology series Digging for Britain will explore this second burial in greater depth on December 19.