Iron Age human sacrifice victim found in Dorset

A woman buried in a grave in Iron Age Dorset has been identified as a likely victim of human sacrifice. There is evidence that she did hard physical labor in her short life, died from being stabbed in the neck, and her body was buried in an anomalous, highly ritualized way. This combination of elements is rare physical and circumstantial evidence that the deceased was killed as an offering.

The grave containing human and animal bones was discovered in 2010 in an excavation of an Iron Age banjo enclosure (round areas bounded by a ditch and embankment with an entrance passage that gives them a banjo-like shape) at Winterborne Kingston in Dorset. Archaeologists found multiple burial pits and traces of roundhouses in the enclosure. In pit 5013, the fully articulated skeleton of an adult was discovered over a layer of animal bones.

Analysis found the body belonged to a woman in her late 20s at time of death. Despite her young age, her vertebrae were damaged from exertion and showed signs of arthritic changes. The areas of muscle attachment indicate her muscles were well-developed from rigorous and consistent physical activity. Stable isotope analysis of her teeth found she grew up more than 20 miles from the Winterborne Kingston enclosure.

The animal bones had been deliberately placed, not just tossed in, with different species (sheep, cow, horse, dog) placed parallel to each other in an off crescent-shaped arrangement. The human body, on the other hand, received no such consideration. She was face down on top of the animal bones, head and legs towards the left side, arms bent at the elbows, hands beneath the body.

Banjo enclosures were in use from around 400 B.C. until the mid-1st century A.D. Accelerator mass spectrometry dating of the bones in pit 5013 to around 351-3 B.C., so this burial dates to the early years of the enclosure practice. It is unique compared to the other burials at Winterborne Kingston and to Iron Age cemeteries elsewhere in Dorset. Typically, bodies were buried with pottery and meat offerings and were respectfully laid to rest.

She also suffered a rib fracture caused by blunt force trauma about three weeks before her death. Healing had begun and appeared to be progressing well when she met her end. Cut marks on her cervical vertebrae indicate a fine bladed weapon had been inserted into her neck from behind, just under the base of the skull. This wound showed no signs of healing, so it was inflicted right before her death. The placement of the body suggests she was killed inside the pit, perhaps with her hands tied, and buried where she fell.

“All the significant facts we have found such as the problems with her spine, her tough working life, the major injury to her rib, the fact she could have come from elsewhere, and the way she was buried could be explained away in isolation,” [Dr. Martin Smith, Associate Professor in Forensic and Biological Anthropology at Bournemouth University,] said.

“But when you put them all together with her deposition face down on a platform of animal bone, the most plausible conclusion is that she has been the victim of a ritual killing. And of course, we found a large cut mark on her neck which could be the smoking gun,” he added.

The team highlight that as well as providing evidence of human sacrifice, being able to understand the life of the Iron Age woman has been important, both in terms of telling her individual story but also in understanding more about less-fortunate members of society in the past.

“The burials that get the most attention tend to be those of higher status, privileged people,” Dr Smith explained. “However, being able to humanise the story of this woman’s life has given us a valuable glimpse into the other side of Iron Age society. Behind every ancient burial we find is someone’s story waiting to be told.”

The findings have been published in The Antiquaries Journal and can be read here.

One thought on “Iron Age human sacrifice victim found in Dorset

  1. As far as England is concerned, is the “banjo” discussed here related to “Duropolis” and the “Maiden Castle” oppidum, 20 miles from the Winterborne Kingston enclosure?

    Previously, I had not heard of Iron Age “banjo enclosures”, but their description reminded me of the Iron Age “Glauberg”, where there was an oppidum and –among other installations– burial mounds, of which one sports a processional way, in total adding up to a “banjo”:

    “A number of earth features (banks and ditches) are located south of the (Glauberg) oppidum, some closely associated with mound 1. (…) Most strikingly, a processional way 350 m long, 10 m wide and flanked by deep ditches approached the tumulus from the southeast, far beyond the settlement perimeter.”

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