Bones provide 'irrefutable evidence' that ancient Britons were cannibals

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The Independent Online

Archaeologists have the first firm evidence that the Ancient Britons were cannibals. The discovery has immense implications for our understanding of ancient native religions.

Archaeologists have the first firm evidence that the Ancient Britons were cannibals. The discovery has immense implications for our understanding of ancient native religions.

Excavations in Gloucestershire are yielding up the shattered bones of human sacrificial victims, some of whom appear to have been partially devoured in cannibalistic rituals.

Discovered at the bottom of what, in ancient times, had been a 10-metre-deep natural pit, the human remains date from around the time of the Roman conquest of Britain and may have been deposited there by Celtic Druid priests as part of a mass sacrificial rite connected with armed opposition to the Roman invaders.

It is known from the writings of Julius Caesar that, in Celtic religion, victory in battle could only be guaranteed if human sacrifices were offered beforehand. For the gods to help the Celts in the taking of enemy life, they had to be offered sacrificial lives in exchange.

There are many examples of single human sacrifices having been carried out by Iron Age northern Europeans - including the Celts of Britain - but this is the first time that archaeologists in northern Europe have discovered what appears to be a mass human sacrifice from this period, and certainly the first one involving cannibalism.

So far the excavations in the ancient pit - directed by Mark Horton, reader in archaeology at the University of Bristol - have yielded the remains of seven human corpses, at least one of which appears to have been subjected to cannibalistic activity. But only 5 per cent of the bone deposit has so far been excavated and up to 40 more bodies probably still remain to be discovered.

Because healthy respected males were essential to military victory, the ancient Celts preferred to sacrifice criminals or cripples - and this practice is confirmed by some of the material excavated so far at the site, Alveston in south Gloucestershire. One individual probably suffered from Pagets disease while another appears to have been severely disabled.

"The evidence for cannibalism is irrefutable," said Dr Horton. Analytical work carried out at Bournemouth University for a special television programme being broadcast on Channel Four this Thursday, shows that one human femur had been split longitudinally - a practice that would only have been carried out if the people making the sacrifice wanted to extract human marrow.

Significantly, the human bones were intermingled with the remains of dogs. Indeed it is likely that these animals were sacrificed along with the humans, perhaps to accompany them to the land of the gods of death, the underworld. Dogs and pits in the ground were often associated in Celtic tradition with the land of the dead.

The Channel Four special 'Timeteam' programme on the discovery will be broadcast at 9pm on Thursday.

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