Sacrifice and Persecution

Two recent finds in the UK have revealed caches of human remains that may be the victims of sacrifice and persecution. These are two very complex subjects in mortuary archaeology, and they both require a strong context and understanding of the broader culture and time period. These practices emerge in a number of contexts such as offerings to the supernatural, punishment, the elimination of enemies or trophy-taking. Often sacrifice and persecution occurs for religious purposes, as a way of appeasing a god. Due to it being a complicated and often sensitive subject, careful attention to context and detail is critical when developing interpretations.

In Norwich the remains of 17 individuals were found in a well during excavations in 2004. The skeletal remains were only recently investigated this past year. The remains date to the 12th century CE, and were all found jumbled together in a well. Pictures of the bodies in situ suggest that they were thrown in head first. Damage to the adult skull bones further supports this, as well as the lack of damage to the higher up sub-adult bones, which would have been cushioned from destruction. At first inspection, the bodies were thought to have been disposed of due to sickness, but there was no skeletal evidence for leprosy or tuberculosis, and the bones are too early to be plague related.

However, there is a record of the persecution of Jewish people during the 12th century, and Norwich was noted for having a Jewish population. During this period Jewish persecution was fairly common. In 1146 CE, a campaign of blood accusations, persecutions based on allegations, began. In the records at Norwich, it was recorded that a 12 year old boy was found slaughtered by a Jewish man who required a sacrifice for his religion. In response to this baseless allegation, the town killed a number of Jewish people and drove out many more. The boy who was killed was given sainthood by the church, only fueling the Christian rage against the Jewish people. Given the religious climate and the location, it is completely plausible that these individuals found in the well are Jewish, and their death part of this persecution.

However, more evidence is needed than coincidence of context. As Kristina Killgrove argues in her blog post on the subject, we need cultural evidence of their religious beliefs. Karl Radl questions the assumptions made by the archaeologists, also noting that there is no clear evidence for their identities or religious beliefs. Given the sensitive nature of this find and the complexity of the conclusions being drawn, we need solid evidence before interpretations like this can be fully assessed. **Check Kristina’s comment at the bottom, DNA evidence is highly suggestive that Black’s interpretations are correct!**

In Ryndale Windy pits, initial excavations revealed a number of individual remains in the 1950’s. Recent investigation of the skeletons took a more detailed investigation. The caves were used by people from the late Neolithic period, about 4,500 years ago, until the late Romano-British period from the 4th to 5th centuries CE. The remains under investigation are approximately 2,000 years old, and have clear signs of trauma. Evidence on the remains showed that many of the individuals suffered from blunt or sharp force trauma. There are also cut marks along the long bones suggestive of the removal of flesh. Examination of the skulls showed that one had clear parallel cut marks that are often associated with scalping. The combination of the location in these pits and the high frequency of trauma has led archaeologist Sue Black to conclude that these were part of some ritual killing.

Like bodies in the well, we need more information before we can clearly say that this was ritual. In some  cultures, the removal of flesh is quite common and the placement in these caves may be related to religious beliefs regarding the afterlife. In the early woodland period in North America, cut marks following death were related to the bodies being dismembered so they could be bundled up and curated by family members. Cut marks do not have to indicate sacrifice or cannibalism. There is no indication whether injuries are prior to death, the cause of death, or healed, so we do not know how they relate to the site. Ritual is a problematic term in archaeology, as it has become a catch all for anything out of the ordinary. Therefore, we need much more information before we can interpret this data.

When dealing with ritual, sacrifice and persecution, a careful attention to detail is required. Both of these archaeological finds are being aired on the TV show History Cold Case on BBC Two, but sadly I do not have access to the videos. Hopefully in the future scholarly reports on these two finds will be released so that we can learn about the details. Being on such sensitive topics, it is difficult for us to assess the validity of these claims without further knowledge of the context and remains.

Works Cited

2 responses to “Sacrifice and Persecution

  1. I hadn’t seen the (pseudonymous) Karl Radl piece – and there’s no way to leave comments on his post (one-way internet discussions with anonymous people are rather annoying). He hilariously suggested that the researchers didn’t rule out suicide for the people in the well… when 11/17 of them were children (as young as 2).

    Interestingly, this report ( suggests that the DNA showed some (or all?) had genetic links to the Ashkenazi Jewish population. I’d like to see the program too, to confirm this, but if that’s what the researchers’ case rests on for the “Jewish” question, it’s about the most solid evidence you can find archaeologically. Yes, just because they’re related to Jews doesn’t mean they culturally identified as them. And just because they’re in a well doesn’t mean they were persecuted. But the genetics and the perimortem broken bones and the historical evidence do strongly suggest ethnic violence, even if they don’t conclusively prove it.

    We’re archaeologists, we make interpretations to the best of our ability, and I think these researchers could be correct. At the very least, they’ve done their homework and have a ton of evidence to support their theory.

  2. Another hint about DNA from the press release of University of Dundee:

    The team referred to Dr Ian Barnes to analysis the DNA of some of the bones. He discovered essential facts which gave the team a breakthrough – five of the people had DNA consistent with Jewish communities, were family members and trace chemicals found in the bones, through tests known as stable isotope analysis, also revealed they had lived in the local area for many years.

    Professor Sue Black said: “Out of the five of them where DNA was retrievable good information what we have is a situation where the mitochondrial DNA which is the DNA which is transferred down the maternal line, effectively matches. We have family members. That was really important but what was more important was that the DNA told us that the most likely ethnic group to which these individuals belong are Jewish.”

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