The practice of sacrifice in Iron Age Britain
The practice of sacrifice in Britain has a long history, but was particularly prolific during the Iron Age. Nevertheless, it has long been a contested topic: how often were sacrifices made, for what reasons, and what—or more interestingly, who—were sacrificed? These are the three primary questions that have puzzled archaeologists and historians alike for many decades. It is only in recent years that we have begun to paint a picture of what might have occurred during sacrificial events, and who might have been the chosen few that were ceremonially killed.
The idea of sacrifice stems from a desire to appease the gods: this could include asking for divine forgiveness or foresight, or to apologize for an event or task that might have angered them. The Britons—and various other cultures such as the Greeks, Romans, and Mesopotamians—believed that the gods must receive sacrifices for various reasons, such as to request victory in battle, or to show thanks for said victory. Evidence suggests a belief in sacrifice to stem off plague or famine, or even promote a good harvest. The ritual appears to come from a need to appease supernatural deities in various facets, as ancient cultures were prone to believe that without the will of the gods, most actions were punishable and would result in ruin.
So what and who were sacrificed? Most of modern archaeology points to animals. The archaeological record has revealed a wide variety of animals killed ritualistically, but the Britons appear to have greatly favored horses and dogs. This is undoubtedly due to each animal's religious significance within the culture. Horses were honored because of their power and strength in war, and it was a great advantage to have the ability to ride into battle, elevated above the playing field. The Britons revered horses as gifts from the gods so much so that it is rumored that Vercingetorix, a chieftain of the Arverni tribe, who brought together a confederation of Gallic tribes in a revolt against Roman forces under Julius Caesar, was said to have sent his horses away for their protection despite realizing that this may cost his own life. At many sites, horse heads or bridles have been found, offerings to the divine realm.
Horse remains dating back to the Iron Age, which were discovered during the construction of a new a school in Carshalton, south-west London. Image source .
Similarly, dogs have been commonly found in grave sites, important because of their companionship and guardianship of humans; they could dwell in the home, warn against nighttime intruders, and sniff out preys or enemies. They were the protectors. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that dogs were offered as a highly valued sacrifice to the gods.
However, the most controversial subject surrounding sacrifice in Iron Age Britain, is human sacrifice. While some archaeologists are adamant that there is strong evidence for sacrificial practices involving humans, others doubt whether it ever occurred at all, instead arguing that so-called sacrificial victims were simply victims of murder. While human sacrifice may not have been as common as many may believe, certain archaeological finds, coupled with ancient texts, have led to the belief that at least on some occasions, human sacrifice did occur. One of the most convincing examples is Lindow Man.
Lindow Man is the name given to the remains of an Iron Age man recovered from a bog in north-west England. A detailed analysis of his remains enabled researchers to piece together his final moments. He had been given a drink containing mistletoe, which was sacred to the Druids, and was then given two blows to the head. His throat was cut and he was allowed to bleed for a time before being placed face down in a pond in the bog.
The features of Lindow Man’s remains suggest he was a victim of sacrifice. Image source: British Museum
Most researchers believe that the humans that were chosen for sacrifice in Iron Age Britain were criminals or prisoners of war. As far as scholars can tell thus far, non-criminal sacrifices appear to have been used only when there were no criminals available. This may explain why some victims appear to have been treated with respect, while others show signs of torture or violent injury.
It was common for sacrificial victims to be submerged in water rather than buried, though both did happen. The ancient Britons believed that water was a doorway to another world or realm closer to the gods. Due to this, victims such as the Lindow Man, Lindow Woman, and the Lindow Man II have been found in bogs, though rivers and lakes have also turned up supposedly sacrificial victims. The submerging of victims has meant that a detailed record has been left for archaeologists to study, as the watery conditions can protect and preserve the body for future examination.