Just how much pain and suffering was experienced in later prehistoric human sacrifice?

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“The performative nature of violence, the control of suffering, and the inaccessibility of locations point to extremely deliberate and ceremonial acts of killing for many bog bodies.”  

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Understanding the archaeology of human sacrifice requires a forensic approach – one that explores the victims and the ‘scenes of crime’ in order to interpret the motivation of the perpetrators. Such an approach is needed if we are to differentiate between a sacrificial victim, and one resulting from murder or even normal burial.

In most instances, forensic specialists examining human remains on archaeological sites can only work with the fragmentary remains of skeletons because the fleshy parts rot away. However, some very specific burial environments can result in the preservation of more of the body, including skin and hair, as well as internal organs, and the remains of an individual’s final meal preserved in their stomach. With soft tissues surviving, the task of identifying and interpreting the wounds experienced by the victim becomes infinitely more achievable.

One such environment that facilitates preservation is the peat bogs or northern Europe. These dynamic environments form slowly and are characterised by waterlogging with stagnant water that facilitates the growth of mosses such as Sphagnum. Here, the combination of water chemistry and environmental stasis inhibits the bacteria and fungi that would otherwise rot the flesh. For human remains, this preservation of ‘bog bodies’ is captivating – looking directly into the face of someone who died over two millennia ago. It is likely that the prehistoric communities from which both the victims and perpetrators came knew these preservative qualities of peat bogs.

There is however a problem. The sheer weight of saturated peat, and movements within the bog can result in damage to buried bodies. Likewise, processes of peat-cutting in the past and present within so many of these environments, for fuel and horticulture, can shred the fragile remains. 

Recent advances in the scientific analysis of bog bodies has allowed us to differentiate between injuries resulting from intentional acts in prehistory and these other processes. Consequently, re-analyses of many of the bog bodies from northern Europe have drawn focus on specific injuries. For some bodies, this has raised the question of whether they might have died of natural causes. For others, it has highlighted the sheer brutality of injuries experienced in the final moments of the victims.

For bog bodies dating to the Iron Age, confirmed injuries are extensive. Those that would ultimately have resulted in death include decapitation, cranial trauma, stabbing, strangulation, hanging and throat slitting. In some cases, as with a body from Lindow Moss in Cheshire, UK, the initial blows to his head with an axe did not kill him immediately, as there was evidence for swelling around the wound. However, in combination with being garrotted and having his jugular slit before being pushed face-down into the a boggy pool, this was just one part of an excessively brutal act of overkill. Whilst some victims experienced similar multiple injuries, others were killed using just one. For example, in Denmark, the body known as Tollund Man was hanged, whereas Grauballe Man had his throat slit, severing his trachea and rendering him unable to scream.

A perfunctory assessment of these barbaric acts appears to echo a brutal past of malicious violence, and this is reinforced by the possibility of acts of torture. Two bodies found in central Ireland had even experienced their nipples being sliced, with one having withies forced into cuts made through his upper arms. An example from the Netherlands revealed that the victim had been disembowelled.

It is of course possible that these apparent acts of torture actually took place after the victims had died – it is not possible to know. From the evidence that we can be certain of, what would the brutality have actually meant for the victim? To experience pain, a victim needs to remain conscious. Just how long were victims conscious after the acts of violence commenced?

Studies from medicine and veterinary science provide some of the answers. Reliable studies regarding decapitation do not exist, but we might assume an immediate or very rapid loss of consciousness. Blows to the top of the head with an axe, as with Lindow Man, would probably have resulted in immediate loss of consciousness. For hanging and strangulation, reducing the flow of oxygenated blood to the brain will normally result in loss of consciousness within fifteen seconds; faster if the method damages the spine as with a ‘drop’ hang. Depending on what is cut, slitting the throat might stop the flow of oxygenated blood to the brain, as with Grauballe Man, leading to a loss of consciousness within ten seconds. For less extreme examples, blood loss might take up to a minute before loss of consciousness. Stabbing can be more varied, but in the majority of cases, this probably penetrated the heart, resulting in a loss of consciousness within four seconds.

The barbarism of these acts of violence is clearly not matched by levels of conscious pain and suffering. In all instances, there is good reason to believe that the entire experience lasted for not more than fifteen seconds. For examples such as Lindow Man where blood loss could have taken longer, the cutting of his jugular probably took place after excessive cranial injuries. With bog bodies, the violence was often extravagant and highly performative, but appears to have minimised the suffering of the victim. And this might even have been tempered through the use of narcotics.

But what of the ‘crime scene’? Recent work on bog body sites in the UK and Denmark is starting to reveal certain patterns in the locations of violence within the bogs. In numerous cases, the bodies were found far from what would have been the dryland edges of the bogs, and sometimes deliberately positioned as far from dry land as possible. This is coupled with evidence from some sites that the surface of the bog had become wetter and less accessible in the years prior to the events.

The performative nature of violence, the control of suffering, and the inaccessibility of locations point to extremely deliberate and ceremonial acts of killing for many bog bodies. The bogs themselves were special places, being neither land nor water, providing a stage for these performances. Whether relating to acts of propitiation relating to the agricultural cycle, or for divination, religious motivation was fundamental to the sacrifice of human victims in later prehistory. 

The published research that this is based on is:

  1. Chapman, H. 2015. The landscape archaeology of bog bodies. Journal of Wetland Archaeology 15(1), 109-121
  2. Chapman, H.P. and B.R. Gearey 2019. Towards and archaeology of pain? Assessing the evidence from later prehistoric bog bodies. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 38(2), 1-14

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