Fornvännen’s Winter Issue On-Line

The new version of a slab from the Kivik cairn.

The new version of a slab from the Kivik cairn.

Fornvännen 2015:1 is now on-line on Open Access.


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.

800 Years Of Human Sacrifice In Kent

British Archaeology #131 (July/August) has a feature by Pippa Bradley that caught my interest. It’s about a Wessex Archaeology dig in 2004-05 at Cliffs End farm in Thanet, a piece of north-east Kent that was an island up until the 16th century when silting finished connecting it to mainland England. What we’re dealing with here is ritual murder, some pretty strange disposal of the dead and ancient Scandinavian migrants.

Use of the site begins in earnest with six ring-ditch barrows during the Early Bronze Age (2200-1500 cal BC). These were poorly preserved and yielded few interesting finds. People then leave the barrows in peace for several centuries and don’t return to the site in any serious way until the Late Bronze Age shortly before 1000 cal BC. And that’s when the weirdness starts. Three round enclosure ditches are dug and re-dug, slighting five of the barrows. The ditches were found to contain household refuse, episodic feast remains and a burial or skull deposit (all shared with various pits inside the enclosures). And the smallest barrow gets slighted from another side by a continuous complex of at least 36 pits, some of them bearing evidence for re-cutting and re-use. The uncovered part measured 29 by more than 52 m. Here’s where the weirdness turns to horrors.

Respectful Late Bronze Age burial in England is typically urned cremation in closely clustered cemeteries. The treatment of the bodies deposited in the Cliffs End pit complex is strikingly deviant. Basically what they’re doing here is killing people and livestock, manipulating their remains ritually, often exposing them on site for a time, and finally inhuming them in pits. Bone preservation is perfect, leaving it all too clear what is going on. And it goes on for 800 years, well into the Middle Iron Age about 200 cal BC. A three-century hiatus during the Early Iron Age, I speculate, may be covered by the part of the feature that hasn’t been excavated.

At least 24 people end up in sacrificial pits between 1000 and 800: males and females, ages 6 to 55. One large pit sees the following sequence (image above):

1. Redeposited human bones and two new-born lambs
2. Woman over 50, killed by sword blows to the back of the head
3. Another pair of lambs
4. Cow’s head, two children and a teenage girl
5. Cattle foot and bag containing dismembered man, 30-35
6. More redeposited bones from people who died before the pit was dug (see below)

Some of the disarticulated bones from this pit are partly charred or gnawed by scavengers or show a patination typical of temporary deposition in a nearby midden. The excavators apparently interpret the animal parts and certain small artefacts in the pit as grave goods, but to my mind nothing in the pit should be seen as a respectful burial: human bodies, livestock and artefacts are all sacrificial gifts to some particularly blood-thirsty deity. The artefact finds are mainly pottery, but also a rare and interesting lead weight and part of a bone balance. Weights and balances are indicative of trade and a grasp of mathematics, but are also important tools when composing metal alloys such as the period’s all-important bronze. Scandinavian weights of the same era take the shape of little female statuettes wearing paired torque neck rings, and we find the paired torques as wetland sacrifices.

Iron Age practices in the sacrificial pit complex are less intense and intricate: over a period of three centuries, eight people get buried whole and seven disarticulated bone bundles are deposited. One young man is buried on top of half a horse. The bone bundles bear signs of scavenging by dogs.

Who were these people then? Could anybody at Cliffs End get roped in for sacrifice and be denied respectful burial at the whim of the local druid? Historical and ethnographic accounts suggest that this is unlikely. Small low-tech societies have a strong sense of in-group versus out-group. If you don’t get your urn in the clan’s urn field in this era, it’s highly likely that you are simply not a clan member. And here’s where stable isotopes come in, a fantastic data source that sees more and more use in interpreting bone finds. Among the questions isotopes can answer today are main food sources and geographical area of residence.

Andrew Millard of Durham University analysed all suitable teeth from 25 individuals. Here’s the geographical breakdown of the sacrificial victims’ area of origin:

36% local
32% southern Norway or Sweden
20% western Mediterranean
12% indeterminate

The reason that you do more than one tooth from the same individual is that teeth form in sequence during gestation, childhood and adolescence. If you move or change your diet during that period, this shows up in the isotope ratios of whatever tooth your body is making at the time. This gave particularly interesting results in the case of an old woman whose disarticulated skull was redeposited in the Late Bronze Age charnel pit discussed above. She was born in Scandinavia, moved to northern Britain as a child, lived a long life and finally ended up as a prop in a religious ritual on Thanet.

More than half of the victims are foreigners. And though more than a third are locals, we don’t know if their parents were locals as DNA hasn’t been done yet. Who travels like this in the 1st millennium BC? Certainly not tourists. Traders do travel, but for a community dependent on long-distance bronze deliveries, it would not be a sustainable strategy to ambush and kill the traders – never mind that these were in all likelihood well organised and armed. My guess is that we’re dealing with slave raiding and slave trade. Goods travelled, and one valuable commodity was slaves. All valuable commodities were appropriate as sacrifices to the gods when that time came.

In the case of the well-travelled old woman, I imagine her being taken from her tribe in southern Norway by Scottish slave raiders, growing up in Scotland, and then being traded on maturity to a Kentish tribe with odd religious practices. She probably gives birth to more slaves there (perhaps a few of the recovered individuals with local isotope signatures) and lives most of her adult life at Cliffs End. Not as a member of the clan, but as property of a clan member. And then comes that final Beltane feast out by the barrows.

Check out Wessex Archaeology’s on-line exhibition on Cliffs End! A monograph is in press: Jacqueline McKinley et al., Cliffs End Farm, Isle of Thanet, Kent: a mortuary & ritual site of the Bronze Age, Iron Age and Anglo-Saxon Period with evidence for long-distance maritime mobility.