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.