Iron Age Skull Suggests Sinister Story of Severed Heads Tossed into Wetlands
There is much to consider when a human skull is found. When the authorities reach the scene, they need to find out if it is the mark of a modern death or the remains from a person who lived in the past. If the skull is an old one, a different set of people and questions will arise. Often the answers will lead to more questions…
This is the story with a skull found by a man walking a dog along the banks of the River Sowy in Somerset, England in March 2017. The first assumption was a possible homicide – possibly a recent one - but months of analyses showed that only part of that conclusion is likely. Gruesome cut marks hint at a horrifying ritual either causing, or performed shortly after, death.
An Environment Agency press release explains that the skull comes from the late Iron Age (380-190 BC) and is believed to be the remains of a woman who was 45 years old, or possibly a little older.
Example of a woman dressed as if she lived in the Iron Age. (Peter van der Sluijs/CC BY SA 3.0)
Cut marks at the base suggest that her head was severed from her body; however, it is uncertain if the action was the cause of death. The rest of the woman’s body hasn’t been discovered.
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Richard Bunning, an archaeologist who has been excavating the site with South West Heritage Trust, told The Telegraph:
“We can’t tell if her head was severed before or after her death, but it seems to be part of a particular kind of ritual because the head has been taken away from the body and deliberately deposited in a watery environment. We have found similar severed heads like this in other watery places, so it seems that they were sacred places, rather than just where people were living. We don’t know what happened to the rest of her body. We know that heads were revered in the Iron Age and were of much greater interest than the rest of the bones.”
Archaeologists suggest that the woman may have been decapitated as part of a ritual of an Iron Age ‘head cult.’ At that time, it is thought that heads may have been taken as trophies following a battle. Perhaps the heads were put on display as warnings at hillforts or used in rituals at a sacred site.
Reconstruction of the dress and equipment of an Iron Age Celtic warrior from Biebertal, Germany. (CC BY SA 3.0) Celtic warriors are said to have taken heads as trophies after battle.
There are still many unanswered questions regarding that factor. But, according to BBC News, researchers have managed to find out some other details of the individual’s life. Specifically, analysis of the skull’s teeth suggests the person had issues with gum disease and tooth loss. They also found that coarse foods were a common part of the woman’s diet, she had severe osteoarthritis in the joint of her right jaw, and she probably was chronically ill or experienced nutritional stress as a child.
After the skull was examined, researchers were keen to look for further artifacts around the location. In December, the Environment Agency reduced water levels in the area, so archaeologists could investigate.
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The woman's skull was deliberately severed from her body. (Environment Agency)
They did not find any other human remains during excavations, but they did unearth a series of round timber posts nearby. It is currently unknown if the posts date to the same time period as the skull. The Environment Agency press release states that these were probably once part of a wooden causeway or raised walkway. These walkways began to appear in the wetlands sometime in the Neolithic or Bronze Age and by the Iron Age some people began to live in the wetland. Bunning said the skull may have been an example of a ritual offering which is known to have taken place in this environment, “I think the skull is some kind of religious deposit. We don’t know if she was a victim or a revered member of a tribe, but it was clearly an important ritual site.”
More groups of posts were found further down the channel, hinting that other wooden structures were once built nearby. In fact, the Environment Agency press release asserts that Iron Age defenses and several circular pits used for storing grain were discovered previously in a floodplain not too far from the current site. That location overlooks the wetlands where the skull was found and may have been used as a refuge.
Example of an Iron Age (Celtic) round house. (Clive Perrin/CC BY SA 2.0)
Water levels have since been returned to normal in an attempt to preserve the wooden posts and any other remains awaiting discovery at the site.
Top Image: The Iron Age skull was deliberately severed from its body. Source: Environment Agency