Were The Dead At Cliffs End Simply Buried?

On 10 June I blogged about some grisly finds from Cliffs End in Kent which to my mind indicate eight centuries of human sacrifice during the Late Bronze and Iron Ages. I invited colleagues at Wessex Archaeology who did the dig to comment, and Chief Osteoarcheologist Jacqueline McKinley kindly sent me some detailed views.

The first thing to note is that though the full monograph hasn’t appeared yet and my blog entry was based on a pop-sci feature in British Archaeology, a scholarly paper on the site has in fact been published:

McKinley, Schuster, & Millard 2013. Dead-sea connections: a Bronze Age and Iron Age ritual site on the Isle of Thanet. In Rethinking the Bronze Age and the arrival of Indo-European in Atlantic Europe, ed. Koch & Cunliffe. Oxbow Books.

Looking at our differences of opinion, Dr. McKinley is not comfortable with my use of the terms “human sacrifice” and “ritual murder”, because, as she points out, only one of the many skeletons shows signs of lethal violence. I base my interpretation more on the deviant treatment and deposition of the bodies, where crucially they have been dealt with in the same way as the animal bodies deposited at the site rather than given the urned cremation that we recognise as standard respectful burial in that era and region. Many of the human bodies from Cliffs End are not complete, and there are many ways to kill someone that leave no trace on the skeleton. But Dr. McKinley emphasises that she doesn’t find their treatment to have been particularly disrespectful, and in her opinion recent advances show Bronze Age burial in Kent to have been much more varied than previously believed.

This leads on to a fundamental difference in our ways of looking at burial. I find the following comment particularly enlightening.

They are not sacrificial pits. Only one burial pit — 3666 — was found, the others all lay in graves which had been excavated through the backfills overlying pits in the southern half of the feature. The pitting all predates the use of the area for mortuary activity. … They are not pits and not sacrificial

What Dr. McKinley says here is that the pits containing dead people are by definition graves, not sacrificial, not pits, because they contain dead people. Apparently she feels that a dead person cannot be a sacrificial object, and that if you dig a hole you can’t call it a “pit” once you’ve put a dead person in it. If I understand her correctly, Dr. McKinley agnostically looks at all disposal of dead people as the same kind of usually respectful activity unless there is very strong reason to believe otherwise.

I believe that most if not all societies distinguish between friendly and hostile burial, where a good example is the difference between the churchyards and execution sites of the Medieval and Early Modern Periods. Or look at what was done to Osama bin Laden’s body: it was cremated and tossed into the sea, surely not what his family had done if they had dealt with the body rather than his enemies of many years in the US government.

I also emphasise the distinction that slave-owning and warlike societies make between people and chattels, and between in-group and prisoners of war. The Aztecs sacrificed foreign prisoners on top of those pyramids, not the local sandal-maker.

If Bronze Age body disposal in Kent is more varied than previously thought, and I am happy to rely on Dr. McKinley’s expertise on this point, then my question is – why? What does that variability mean? Which of those burials are friendly ones, which are hostile, which of the bodies were deposited as commodities similar to any sacrificial gift to the gods, which belonged to prisoners perceived as foreign sub-humans?

Finally a point where I agree with Dr. McKinley and am happy to stand corrected. The Late Bronze Age ritual enclosures at Cliffs End should probably be seen as snuggling up to the Early Bronze Age barrows rather than slighting them, which was the word I used:

Whilst the enclosure ditches do slightly impinge upon four of the barrow ditches, rather than ‘slighting’ them (which suggests a deliberate action) they clearly respect them; I appreciate the plans show the enclosure ditches slightly overlapping those of the barrow but by this stage the barrow ditches were largely backfilled and would not have been evident whilst the associated mounds would have been.

Author: Martin R

Dr. Martin Rundkvist is a Swedish archaeologist, journal editor, skeptic, atheist, lefty liberal, bookworm, boardgamer, geocacher and father of two.

5 thoughts on “Were The Dead At Cliffs End Simply Buried?”

  1. As a newspaper magnate (Hearst?) once said, “never check a good story”.

    (He also said “Rosebud”.
    Nope. That was only in the film! See quote above.)


  2. I think it’s simplistic to sort burials into friendly and unfriendly.
    Looking at medieval burials, you not only have the churchyards and execution sites you mentioned, but burials outside the churchyard for suicides, the excommunicated, non christians. Then you get the mass graves for paupers and the hasty ones for plague victims or after battles.
    Even slaves who were not sacrificed are unlikely to have been given the same prestigious burial that their masters were. If they were seen as a commodity, and were no longer useful, they may well have been thrown out in the midden.


    1. I agree that there may be many distinct types of hostile burial. But simplistic is if we do not distinguish that group from friendly burial at all.

      Dead thralls in pig pens and middens must have been very common. We hardly ever have enough burials to represent the entire population before the advent of Christianity.


  3. “They are not sacrificial pits. Only one burial pit — 3666 — was found, the others all lay in graves which had been excavated through the backfills overlying pits in the southern half of the feature. The pitting all predates the use of the area for mortuary activity. … They are not pits and not sacrificial”
    If I understand this right, she says that (with one exception) the bodies are not found in the rubbish pit fills themselves, but in graves later dug into older pit fill. Which would mean there is a stratigraphic difference between pits and graves, so the pits should not be called sacrificial.

    We have similar discussions here in Central Europe, concerning the interpretation of bodies and body parts found in settlement pits and other structures outside “regular” burials. For the pre-roman Iron Age (which is the period I mostly work on) there are at least half a dozen current ways of diposing of human bodies. It is definitely much more differentiated than a simple dichotomy of “friendly and unfriendly”, or “rich and poor”.


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