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.
There is also evidence of what is called pair-burial or multiple-burial, in which two or more people are found buried together in a grave, raising the possibility that one was killed to accompany the other in death. In this case, the dead was probably a high ranking member of society who wanted a servant or animal companion sent with him or her to the afterlife. This pairing concept has been discovered in both high-status graves and in the low-status mounds surrounding a high-status grave, suggesting both levels of society desired such company.
One final theory regarding the purpose for ritualized killing stems from the discovery of bodies found under structures and hill forts. At Danebury and South Cadbury, bodies have been found in the foundations, supposedly sacrificed before the construction. It was commonly believed that without sacrificing first, ground was unconsecrated and thus the structure built was offensive to the gods. Both human and animal sacrifices have been found in such locations, interchangeably and together, signifying the close relationship between certain animals and humans, as well as certain animals' abilities to be substituted for humans as previously referenced.
Cadbury Castle, where evidence of human sacrifice has been found. Image source .
Much of what is known about sacrifice is gleaned from fragments of the literature of Roman historians. Though classical literature cannot be wholly counted upon for evidence, theirs is the first source of modern information about human sacrifice in the Iron Age. (It should be noted, however, that their extreme dislike of the Britons encourages bias in their accounts.) Julius Caesar, Lucan, and Tacitus all reference the burning, hanging, stabbing, throat-cutting, and a variety of other methods for the sacrificial murder of humans. However, archaeologists and Classical scholars have come a long way in piecing together the textual information of the ancients with the remains found at various sites. Though human sacrifice cannot altogether be proven or disproven yet, the practice of making offerings to the gods is known to have taken place in Iron Age Britain, and played a significant role in their daily lives.
Featured image: An artist’s depiction of sacrifice in Iron Age Britain
Aldhouse Green Miranda. Dying for the gods: Human sacrifice in Iron Age and Roman Europe (Stroud: Tempus Publishing Ltd, 2001.)
Aldhouse Green, Miranda. "Human Sacrifice in Iron Age Europe." British Archaeology. 1998. Accessed September 20, 2014. http://www.archaeologyuk.org/ba/ba38/ba38feat.html
Castleden, Rodney. The Element Encyclopedia of the Celts (United Kingdom: Harper Collins Publishers, 2012), 249-51, 419-20, 436-37.
Green Miranda. Animals in Celtic life and myth (London: Routledge, 1992.)
Tacitus. Agricola, translated by Mattingly, H. (revised edition). (Harmondsworth: Penguin Book, 1979.)
"Sacrifice In Iron Age Britain." British Museum. Accessed September 20, 2014. http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/articles/s/sacrifice_in_iron_age_britain.aspx.
"Sacrifice, Prayer, and Divination." Sacred Texts. Accessed Septemeber 13, 2014. http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/rac/rac19.htm
By Ryan Stone