Archaeologists from Bristol University have
uncovered evidence for the most recent cannibalism
in the British Isles in a cave at Alveston, South
Dr. Mark Horton, Reader in Archaeology, has
been working with a local caving group who made
the discovery of numerous bones, some ten meters
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 of the UK 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 (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 Paget's disease.
But the most interesting find was an adult
human femur that 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
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 center 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.
(Editor's Note: A new Time Team program
about the finds at Alveston will be shown at 9 pm
Thursday [March 1]) on the UK's Channel 4.)