The cathartic crowd-puller

Dying for the Gods
April 12, 2002

Human sacrifice is a 'giving' thing, Andrew Chamberlain discovers.

In Britain 150 years ago, judicial executions were conducted in public and were witnessed by crowds of a size that would rival attendances at today's Premier League football matches. Capital punishment was ritualised, proceeding in a sequence that accommodated the traditional last rites of the condemned, public moral statements by civil and religious authorities, and the act of execution itself, with its gruesome minutiae such as the eight (not the legendary 13) turns of rope in the knot of the hangman's noose. Finally, the body of the executed criminal would be denied a Christian burial. Instead it would be interred within the confines of a jail or handed over to anatomists for the final ignominy of public dissection.

In approaching the emotive matter of human sacrifice in proto-historic Europe, Miranda Aldhouse Green begins her book with a discussion of the function and meaning of sacrifice, and poses the question of whether human sacrifice is just a special instance of a wider ritual practice. Essential elements of the concept of sacrifice are the notions of "giving" (regardless of whether the donor accrues reciprocal benefits) and separation or "transformation", through which the sacrificed item is transferred from the material world to the supernatural world. This structuring framework permits much variation on the theme, for instance surrogate items of lower status can be substituted in place of objects of higher value, and the act of sacrifice itself may be associated with either the assurance of favourable circumstances ("conjunctive" sacrifice) or the aversion of potentially threatening events ("disjunctive").

Human sacrifice is most comfortably explained as an aversion ritual, and many of the instances described in the texts of classical Greece and Rome occurred in the context of external threats from invasion and foreign occupation that jeopardised the very existence of those civilised societies. Special properties of human sacrificial ritual are dramatic performance and its culmination in an act of extreme violence. The event generally involves the whole community and results in a collective cathartic experience at the moment of slaughter. According to the anthropologist René Girard, this controlled and dramatised aspect of the ritual sacrifice of a living being serves the purpose of canalising societal aggression and neutralising the potential for random acts of violence in society at large. It is perhaps only the absence of a supernatural dimension to the proceedings that distinguishes the public executions of 19th-century Britain from the human sacrifices of barbarian Europe described in Julius Caesar's De Bello Gallico and Tacitus's Germania .

Aldhouse Green focuses on northwestern Europe during the transition from the indigenous cultures of the Iron Age to the period of Roman conquest and colonisation, in other words 600BC to AD400. The testimony that human sacrifice took place in this period is found in the writings of classical authors, together with the material evidence uncovered by archaeology - primarily the remains of the victims themselves and in a few instances the instruments by which they were dispatched. Both lines of evidence are open to interpretation, and Aldhouse Green is as aware as any of the dangers of superimposing our current stereotypes, or those of classical antiquity, on the native cultures of prehistoric Europe. By the time that the Romans colonised Gaul the practice of human sacrifice had been banned in Rome, and this might explain the repugnance of the Graeco-Roman writers towards the continuing occurrence of the rite among barbarian peoples. The archaeological evidence for human sacrifice is equally problematic, because cause of death can rarely be discerned from human remains from archaeological sites and in most instances it is only the context of deposition of the body that enables the investigator to sustain the argument that a ritual killing has taken place. Aldhouse Green buttresses her interpretations by citing ethnographic accounts of human sacrifice from other parts of the world, such as the Zapotec and Inca cultures described by the Spanish colonisers of the New World. These ethno-historical accounts provide additional insights into the social and religious circumstances within which human sacrifice can take place.

Dying for the Gods structures the evidence according to the manner of death of the victim: principally, killing by fire, fatal trauma from a blunt or a penetrative instrument, and asphyxiation - that is hanging, drowning or live burial. Other modes of death are possible but they either leave little archaeological trace, such as poisoning, or do not achieve death with sufficient rapidity to be effective in a sacrificial context. In some instances, for example the famous bog body from Lindow Moss, in Cheshire, multiple injuries - each potentially fatal - were inflicted, suggesting either that the individual was sacrificed to multiple supernatural recipients, or, more prosaically, that the killing involved the collective participation of several executioners.

The best archaeological evidence for human sacrifice comes from these prehistoric bog bodies; nearly 2,000 bodies have been recovered from wetland sites in northern Europe and perhaps half of these date to the period covered by Aldhouse Green's book. Although some bog bodies have been interpreted as accidental deaths or the victims of isolated acts of interpersonal violence, the ritualised nature of the injuries sustained by many of the bodies, together with their depositional context, suggest that they died as a result of punishment or sacrifice. The latter interpretation is supported by findings of other votive offerings deposited in bogs, part of a wider tradition of votive deposition in watery places during later European prehistory.

The extraordinary preservation of the soft tissues in some of the bog bodies allows not only the mode of death to be inferred but also can reveal the individual's physical condition. A significant proportion of the Iron Age bog bodies from Europe exhibit deformities or disabilities that would have been noticeable to their contemporaries, and Aldhouse Green suggests that people with physical abnormalities were among those deliberately selected for sacrifice. The book devotes a chapter to discussing the selection of victims for sacrifice, including consideration of age, gender and social identity and status. A common attribute linking the victims is marginality or exclusion from the community, with the classical texts mentioning criminals, slaves and prisoners of war as favoured for sacrifice.

Children and adolescents are well represented in the archaeological evidence from bog bodies, while the skeletons of infants and children are also discovered as foundation burials below the walls and floors of Iron Age and Romano-British buildings. Aldhouse Green draws parallels here with the historically documented traditions of child sacrifice exercised by the Phoenician and the Inca cultures. These patterns in the selection of victims are consistent with surrogacy, the idea that individuals of lesser worth could be substituted in place of a member of the sacrificer's own group.

There is, of course, the danger of collating too many and too diverse instances of ritual and symbolic activity under the rubric of human sacrifice, and Aldhouse Green perhaps takes the arguments too far when discussing the evidence for ritual treatments of the human head. The classical writers noted that heads were collected by the Gauls as war trophies, and representations of the head are a common motif in Celtic art. Can this practice be linked to human sacrifice? Some of the iconography that Aldhouse Green describes as depicting severed heads can equally be attributed to symbolic representation of the person or the authority that they embody. As an analogy, consider the image of the monarch on our currency and postage stamps: the royal personage is truncated at the base of the neck. Isolated skulls dating to the Iron Age have been recovered from the Thames and other major rivers in Britain, but here our observations need to take account of the bias introduced by the sites of recovery. Bodies deposited into flowing rivers become disarticulated; and often, when rivers were dredged in the 19th century, only the skull was recognised as human and handed over to collectors and antiquarians. In Lindow Moss, a severed head and decapitated body were found at separate locations, but this particular "execution" was more likely to have been perpetrated by modern peat-cutting machinery than by the sword of an ancient Druid. Aldhouse Green also suggests that the so-called decapitation burials of late Roman Britain might have been ritual murders, but this interpretation is at odds with the resources expended on these sometimes richly furnished burials. To be fair, she also entertains a more thoughtful alternative interpretation that in some instances the portrayal of a severed head or its physical removal from the body symbolises the separation and release of the spirit.

Overall, this book brings together a wealth of archaeological, anthropological and historical evidence that has not previously been available in a single volume, and with its extensive and comprehensive bibliography it is a valuable asset to scholars interested in the archaeology of the body and its treatment during and after death. Human sacrifice, like cannibalism and other practices that are forbidden by the moral codes of modern societies, deserves a cautious and careful reappraisal. We are only just beginning to achieve an understanding of the extent to which cosmology and religion enriched the lives and determined the deaths of the peoples of Iron Age Europe.

Andrew T. Chamberlain is senior lecturer in archaeology, University of Sheffield.

Dying for the Gods: Human Sacrifice in Iron Age and Roman Europe

Author - Miranda Aldhouse Green
ISBN - 0 7524 1940 4
Publisher - Tempus
Price - £25.00
Pages - 224

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