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Jun 10 2013

People have been treating other people horribly for a long, long time

Those English…they have bodies buried in their basements. Here’s this lovely little farm in Kent, which looks quite ordinary, except that it’s the site of an archaeological dig.


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And what lies beneath it? Why, evidence of grisly ritual murders carried out over centuries, a few thousand years ago.

Respectful Late Bronze Age burial in England is typically urned cremation in closely clustered cemeteries. The treatment of the bodies deposited in the Cliffs End pit complex is strikingly deviant. Basically what they’re doing here is killing people and livestock, manipulating their remains ritually, often exposing them on site for a time, and finally inhuming them in pits. Bone preservation is perfect, leaving it all too clear what is going on. And it goes on for 800 years, well into the Middle Iron Age about 200 cal BC.

More than half of the victims are foreigners. And though more than a third are locals, we don’t know if their parents were locals as DNA hasn’t been done yet. Who travels like this in the 1st millennium BC? Certainly not tourists. Traders do travel, but for a community dependent on long-distance bronze deliveries, it would not be a sustainable strategy to ambush and kill the traders – never mind that these were in all likelihood well organised and armed. My guess is that we’re dealing with slave raiding and slave trade. Goods travelled, and one valuable commodity was slaves. All valuable commodities were appropriate as sacrifices to the gods when that time came.

In the case of the well-travelled old woman, I imagine her being taken from her tribe in southern Norway by Scottish slave raiders, growing up in Scotland, and then being traded on maturity to a Kentish tribe with odd religious practices. She probably gives birth to more slaves there (perhaps a few of the recovered individuals with local isotope signatures) and lives most of her adult life at Cliffs End. Not as a member of the clan, but as property of a clan member. And then comes that final Beltane feast out by the barrows.

I understand the British have mostly gotten better since then, and that the Norwegians wreaked their vengeance a thousand years after they were getting raided by slavers.

36 comments

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  1. 1
    theophontes (恶六六六缓步动物)

    @OP

    Bronze Age
    It is hard to fathom what a powerful driver of civilisation (in spite of your terrible tale, above), technology, and exploration the hunt for copper and tin (to make bronze) was. It was all that oil is to the modern world, and more. (And led to equivalent environmental disasters – bronze had an unquenchable need for fuel. Mainly in the form of forests.)

  2. 2
    jstackpo

    Looks like more grist for Steven Pinker’s mill; the “Better Angels” were off duty then.

  3. 3
    Kimpatsu

    It’s about time we Brits did the same thing to those uppity colonials who call themselves “Americans”…

  4. 4
    Maureen Brian

    It’s very close to RAF Manston, as was, so are you sure they’re not Luftwaffe?

    (See road called Spitfire Way just to the North.)

  5. 5
    Sastra

    Grisly, but also mildly amusing in that my neo-pagan friends seem to believe that ancient pagans were tolerant, peaceful people till the war-like Christians came and ruined the noble purity of those who valued the gentle gods of Nature, introducing them to the concept of violence. (They also seem to believe I’ll approve of that viewpoint because … well … atheists don’t like Christianity.)

  6. 6
    No One

    and that the Norwegians wreaked their vengeance a thousand years after they were getting raided by slavers.

    Raiding and invading is never a good idea. It gives people ideas.

  7. 7
    theophontes (恶六六六缓步动物)

    @ Sastra

    ancient pagans were tolerant, peaceful people

    But only for those that passed muster (and even then). Others had a horrible time of it.

    For all the wonderful tales of democracy and flowering intellects, the Greeks (for example) horribly abused their neighbours – not to speak of their fixation with all manner of cruel slavery. We tend to focus on the good bits and gloss over the appalling abuse that underpinned the whole.

  8. 8
    The Mellow Monkey

    For all the wonderful tales of democracy and flowering intellects, the Greeks (for example) horribly abused their neighbours – not to speak of their fixation with all manner of cruel slavery.

    We also tend to equate “the Greeks” with a glorified version of Athenian culture during a specific time period, instead of taking in the full diversity of Greek city-states over time. Which leads to hilariously awful ignorance on display, like the Spartans fighting on the side of freedom against those evil, un-democractic, slave-keeping Persians.

    (I only managed to watch 300 once and can’t remember if anyone actually said anything this ahistorical in the movie or if these projections were simply from people who watched it and wanted to equate Sparta with ‘Murrica.)

  9. 9
    yubal

    Same plot as Rats in the wall. From good ole H.P.

    Do they herd pigs on that farm?

  10. 10
    madtom1999

    It should be noted that this area would have been effectively part of the access to britain and egress to Europe. I think its a bit better to imagine it as an anarchic Ellis(?) island where great wealth would have passed to and from the continent.
    Imagine a border agency with carte-blanche – I’m surprised there are so few finds,

  11. 11
    Nick Gotts

    The Mellow Monkey@8,

    I’m not sure quite what you meant here (I haven’t seen 300), but the Spartans did fight the Persians, along with other Greeks including the Athenians, and the battle at Thermopylae is a well-attested historical event. OTOH, both Sparta and Athens were far more dependent on slave labour than Persia: Persia certainly had slaves, but it wasn’t a slave economy in the sense of relying primarily on slaves for the production of food and other basic commodities, as the Greek states were.

  12. 12
    David Marjanović

    can’t remember if anyone actually said anything this ahistorical in the movie

    Nope. Slavery is never mentioned. Freedom comes up every few minutes, though.

  13. 13
    David Marjanović

    (Heh. You can tell I just came from Tet Zoo. Scientific American is too stupid to allow blockquotes on its blogs, so I have to resort to italics there…)

  14. 14
    theophontes (恶六六六缓步动物)

    slave labour

    Not to mention the thuggish treatment of their neighbours.

    Sparta

    It was the Spartans who had the decency to spare the Athenians and their culture (thank FSM) … I am not so sure the Athenians (to most of us “The (Ancient) Greeks”) would have been so munificent.

  15. 15
    Pierce R. Butler

    Highly recommended history of the Greeks & Persians: Tom Holland’s Persian Fire.

  16. 16
    laurentweppe

    only managed to watch 300 once and can’t remember if anyone actually said anything this ahistorical in the movie or if these projections were simply from people who watched it and wanted to equate Sparta with ‘Murrica.

    I always thought that 300 deserved a pass since it’s framed as a spartan warrior delivering a pep-talk: so of course he’s going to bullshit his troops with talks about freedom and cultural superiority

  17. 17
    The Mellow Monkey

    Nick Gotts, I’m well aware that the Battle of Thermopylae occurred and I’m mildly offended you thought I needed to be told something that obvious. ;)

    I was referencing the ways that fans of the movie 300 and other people with only vague historical knowledge embraced Sparta as some sort of ideal of FREEDOM. Like this.

  18. 18
    hillaryrettig

    I heard about this research a few months ago at a talk at Harvard. They have a new program designed to increase collaborations between historians, archeologists, etc., and scientists of varying stripes, and all kinds of amazing, fascinating stuff seems to be coming out of it.

  19. 19
    StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    One of my all time fave quotes :

    “The Earth should not be cut up into hundreds of different sections, each inhabited by a self-defined segment of humanity that considers its own welfare and its own “national security” to be paramount above all other considerations. There are no nations! There is only humanity. And if we don’t come to understand that right soon, there will be no nations, because there will be no humanity.”
    - Isaac Asimov, Pages 419-421, ‘I Asimov : A memoir’, Bantam Books, 1995.

  20. 20
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    Oooh listen, it’s the Voice of the Fire.

  21. 21
    No One

    The Mellow Monkey @ 17.

    Remember this about Greeks (I’m one of them): for a Greek to admit being wrong is worse than death. If you are wrong about one thing it means you are wrong about everything in the past and future. All the other Greeks around you will hold your feet to the fire for admitting you were wrong.

  22. 22
    danielwatkins

    Ahh, the English, bringing you the “mostly” in “mostly harmless”, now with livestock.

  23. 23
    NelC

    Strictly speaking, I think these people doing the sacrificing were Picts or Celts. As you know, Bob, the present-day English are a mongrel race of Pict-Celt-Roman-Angle-Saxon-Norman-Viking-Dutch-Huguenot-etc, and in a few more generations you won’t be able to pick out the Chinese-Indian-Pakistani-Afghan-Caribbean-etc influences reliably without genetic screening. I say this as a hybrid Anglo-Irish-Scot, myself. Cheers to hybrid vigour!

  24. 24
    mnb0

    @15 PRB: not that high.

    http://www.livius.org/opinion/opinion0013.html

    The reviewer, Jona Lendering, is a pro.

  25. 25
    Rich Woods

    Highly recommended history of the Greeks & Persians: Tom Holland’s Persian Fire.

    Seconded!

  26. 26
    Nick Gotts

    The Mellow Monkey@17,

    My apologies!

    NelC@23,
    According to Stephen Oppenheimer’s The Origins of the British most British people are mostly descended from people who arrived in Britain before farming did – by two distinct routes, across the North Sea, and up the Atlantic coast of continental Europe and the Irish Sea. Subsequently, there have been a number of elite takeovers, including that of the Celts, but even the Anglo-Saxons contributed only about 5% to the modern gene pool.

  27. 27
    sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d

    It was the Spartans who had the decency to spare the Athenians and their culture (thank FSM) … I am not so sure the Athenians (to most of us “The (Ancient) Greeks”) would have been so munificent.

    The Athenians democratically decided to kill all the male inhabitants of Mytilene and enslave the women and children. Fortunately, they changed their minds the next day, but it was a near thing…

  28. 28
    Rob

    Sastra @5 – Yes well, I’m sure no TRUE pagan would…

  29. 29
    thecalmone

    NelC@23 – My mother is from a small village in Somerset and swears she has Phoenician ancestry (I think the Phoenician traders used to sail up the West coast of England and trade goods for tin).

  30. 30
    Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

    It’s about time we Brits did the same thing to those uppity colonials who call themselves “Americans”…

    The silly thing is that the only indication you’re kidding is that most of the words in that sentence aere spaellde thae way theay aere prounouuncde.

  31. 31
    badweasel

    I’d love to see this covered by Time Team.

    Oh, wait…. :(

  32. 32
    weatherwax

    What? What about Time Team?

  33. 33
    oursally

    Grr, 300! The point of the film is lots of bodybuilders looking extremely cool in leather underwear, in fact everybody looking decidedly cool, even the animals. My Greek pal tells me it is not historically true; Spartans would have worn nothing under their cloaks. Can’t they make decent historical movies any more?

  34. 34
    ismenia

    Grisly archaelogical discoveries are pretty common over here. I recall seeing a programme where they discovered a mass grave of newborn babies behind a brothel. I also once read about a bowl made from part of a human skull. Apparently the craftsmanship was excellent. Makes you proud to be British.

    Makes me wonder if there’s anything under our house.

  35. 35
    Pierce R. Butler

    mnb0 @ # 24: http://www.livius.org/opinion/opinion0013.html

    Quite a scathing review; I’d like to see a dialog between Holland & Lendering.

    Holland may indeed have bungled some details; alas, Lendering’s piece has enough errors of syntax/typing to undermine its own case for rigor and thoroughness. And L – as shown by the reviews of two other books in the same piece – seems utterly focused on the Persian side of history; some comments on Holland’s picture of Athenian/Spartan development would have been more helpful.

    I printed out Lendering’s section on Persian Fire and added it to my copy for a useful perspective – but given Holland’s narrative talents and skill with context, will continue to recommend this book as a worthy intro to this part of history.

    Got any links to scholarly views on Holland’s In the Shadow of the Sword?

  36. 36
    birgerjohansson

    At least the New World civilizations added a little class to human sacrifice by building impressive pyramids…
    This gave me an idea. If those crackers served in church are the body of Christ (being sacrificed to cannibals) we could demand the ceremony take place at the summit of a temple pyramid.
    — — — — — — — — —

    Time Team: canceled. :(
    — — — — — — — — —

    The Greeks were more interesting than other ancient peoples, but they were often even worse bastards. The Romans were the worst bastards of all, but in a dull, uninteresting way.

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