Dozens of human skeletons discovered in an ancient burial site in Oxfordshire, England, are believed to be the victims of ritualistic sacrifices more than 3,000 years ago.
Dating back to the Iron Age, the ancient settlement was discovered by the Britain-based Thames Water company while preparing to lay 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) of new water pipes in a chalk stream. During the dig, the water crew discovered 26 human skeletons, as well as evidence of dwellings, animal carcasses, household items like pottery and cutting utensils, and a decorative comb. An excavation conducted by Cotswold Archaeology recovered the items and removed them for forensic examination.
“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,” said Cotswold Archaeology Chief Executive Neil Holbrook in a statement. “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.”
Though it appears to be “shocking”, archaeologists say that pit burial was a common occurrence during the Iron Age. In this style of burial, individuals are usually found crouched on the side in varying positions. The organization believes one of the remains is a female who had been placed in the pit with her “arms draped over her head, her hands together, and the legs bent up with the knees wide apart. One foot appears to have been detached and placed, still articulated, by the right arm. A neonate was found below the body of the adult, possibly interred at an earlier date.”
“The Iron Age is renowned for its 'unusual' burial practices, of which there were a huge variety,” said the organization in a Facebook post, adding that burials occurred both above the ground or in rivers in order for the body to decay (excarnation) before being buried. During this curation, tightly bound positions may have been used to “hold a body together”.
Britain’s Iron Age spans from 800 BCE to 43 AD, when the Romans invaded the British Isles. It’s characterized by the onset of new technologies, including those involved in iron working, pottery, and farming techniques that helped populations grow substantially. Burial practices during this time were extremely varied and often took place in the form of pit burials found inside hill forts and other settlements, though the most famed are bog bodies such as Tollund Man, Grauballe Man, and the Lindo Man.
“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,” said Paolo Guarino, Cotswold Archaeology project officer.
“The results from the analysis of the artifacts, 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.”