Murder or sacrifice at Minehowe?

Picture: Sigurd Towrie

The second burial discovered at Minehowe.

According to the classical sources, the Iron Age in Europe was a particularly brutal period in history. It now appears that things were no different in Orkney.

Analysis of the skeleton of a man unearthed at Minehowe, last summer, has shown he met a violent death.

The remains were found buried haphazardly in a shallow grave in the midden outside the metalworking structure that had been the focus of attention for the past few years.

Dating from about the time of Christ, the skeleton belonged to a 25 to 35-year-old man. He appeared to have been unceremoniously dumped in a shallow grave that was barely large enough to contain his body.

In fact, his right toes were bent back and protruded out of the side of the pit, with a number of toe bones found behind his back.  His skull had been badly crushed by the large stone slabs which were used to cover the burial.

After the excavation, the remains were sent to the Archaeology Department of Bradford University for analysis by human bone specialist, Vikki Ewens.

This revealed much about the man.

He was around 5 ft 5 inches tall, probably right-handed and had used his upper arm muscles a lot. This, together with the state of his backbones, implied a lifestyle that included heavy lifting and carrying weight on his back.  His dental hygiene was not good.

However, it was the cause of death that came as a surprise.

The unfortunate individual had met an extremely violent end, with evidence of a number of traumatic wounds noted on the bones.

A diamond-shaped puncture wound was on the left shoulder blade. Radiating fractures from this wound indicate that it was created by a high velocity blow, perhaps a spear or arrow.

Cut marks were clustered on the left side of the body – on the man’s ribs, shoulder, hand and arm. These seem to have been delivered by a sharp, metal weapon, probably a short sword or long dagger, wielded with some force.  The cuts were probably the cause of the man’s death, the position of the marks on the bones implying damage to his thorax, left lung and left kidney.

The forensic examination of the 2,000-year-old skeleton has allowed the experts to recreate a detailed picture of what may have been the final moments in the man’s life.

The concentration of injuries to his left side indicates an attack to the defensive side of his body, suggesting that he was armed when the attack happened. It seems likely that the projectile injury was the first wound, inflicted from some distance behind, perhaps to slow him down.

The spear, or arrow, may have pinned the shoulder bone, damaging muscles, but did not penetrate deeply enough to be fatal. Despite this, the wound would have been disabling, and as the victim fell or retreated, his attacker, standing beside or slightly behind him, slashed at his prey, who raised his left arm in a final attempt to fend off the blows. The man died almost certainly soon after the attack.

A final deathblow may have been inflicted elsewhere on the victim, perhaps on his head, though the skull bones were too damaged to allow detection.

The victim was then thrown into a shallow grave.

The Iron Age is rife with apparent “evidence” pointing at ritualised murder, or sacrifice – from Pictish carvings that have been interpreted as ritual drowning, to bog bodies that show definite signs of having been tortured before their deaths.

The Iron Age Lindow Man bog body, for example, received three blows to the head, followed by a throat incision. Lastly, a knotted cord was fitted tightly to his neck and twisted.

Were these people victims, or willing participants who went to their death voluntarily?

Human sacrifice is almost impossible to prove archaeologically and, as in this case, the signs of violent death could simply be a murder or execution – or perhaps a combination of them all.

However, it remains possible that the “Minehowe man” was brought to the ritual site perhaps as a sacrifice or offering to the gods of the underworld.

Finding a burial at Minehowe did not come as a complete surprise, since the previous year a formal burial of a young woman was found beneath the floor of the Iron Age workshop. But the nature of this, roughly contemporary, burial was quite different. The woman was regally lying on her back, hands by her sides, with a piece of decorated antler lying on her chest. She also wore a decorative toe-ring on each foot.

It seems to support Roman writers of the time who described the Celts of Europe as warlike and reckless. Perhaps it also represents – a concept alien to us – a casual or informal approach to the disposal of human remains by our ancestors during the Iron Age?

These burials prompted the idea that the area may house a cemetery, similar to the one found at the Knowe o’ Skea, in Westray. There, around 100 Iron Age bodies were found in an area containing metalworking “workshops”, similar to the one at Minehowe.

This appears to point again at a link between the “magical” process of working metal and Iron Age burial rites or conceptions of death.

The Minehowe excavations were directed by Nick Card, of the Orkney Archaeological Trust, and Dr Jane Downes, of Orkney College, with funding provided by Historic Scotland and Orkney Islands Council.

(Visited 143 times, 1 visits today)