Press release issued 7 March 2001
Archaeologists from Bristol University have uncovered evidence for the most recent cannibalism in the British Isles in a cave at Alveston, South Gloucestershire.
Dr Mark Horton, Reader in Archaeology, has been working with a local caving group who made the discovery of numerous bones, some ten metres below ground. Radiocarbon dating of the bones from the cave suggests that they were buried around 2,000 years ago, at the very end of the Iron Age or the beginning of the Roman occupation.
Last September, the cave excavations were filmed as part of Channel 4's Time Team archaeology series, and the full horror of the cave's grisly contents came to light.
About five percent of the bone deposit has so far been excavated, and the remains of at least seven individuals have been discovered. At least one had been murdered, as the rear of the skull was first pole-axed and then smashed inwards; another bone showed evidence of a deformity, and a third showed traces of Pagets disease. But the most interesting find was an adult human femur, which had been split longitudinally and the bone marrow scraped out. This practice, which cannot happen accidentally, is considered to be very good evidence of cannibalistic activity.
The clue as to why these bones were placed in the cave comes from the other finds. These included numerous dog bones, as well as the occasional cattle bone, and a possible vertebra of a bear, as well as wooden twigs.
Dr Horton said: 'This was a highly structured deposit that can only have got there as a result of some form of ritual activity. This region was an important centre for underworld cults during the later Iron Age, some of which survived into the Roman period; in particular the Celtic Hound God, Cunomaglus, was represented as a dog guarding the underworld in local temple sculpture.'
Archaeologists have been suspecting Iron Age cannibalism for some time, from bones found in rubbish pits, but this is the first time that strong evidence has been found for the practice. Roman sources describe human sacrifice among the Celts, but do not mention cannibalism. The sheer scale of cave deposits, and the identical radiocarbon dates from the bones might suggest a single great massacre and feast, perhaps involving over 50 individuals, whose remains were then placed in the cave.
It is hoped that further excavations will take place this summer.
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Copyright: 2001 The University of Bristol, UK
Updated: Wednesday, 07-Mar-2001 10:32:25 GMT