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17 November 2010
Was death of an Iron Age man a ritual killing?

In 2008, archaeologists were excavating an area ready for the University of York's new campus to be built (North Yorkshire, England). They had found evidence of an extensive prehistoric farming landscape of fields, trackways and circular huts, dating back to at least 300 BCE. And then, lying on its own in a muddy pit, they found a human skull. When archaeologists got this skull back to the lab to clean it, they discovered something remarkable: the remains of Britain's oldest brain.
     A CT scanner at York Hospital was used to produce startlingly clear images of the brain. And then Dr Sonia O'Connor, a research fellow in archaeological sciences at Bradford University, was brought in to examine the brain in more detail. So what do we know about this ancient individual? Not a great deal, admits Dr O'Connor. We know from radiocarbon dating that he died sometime between 763 and 415 BCE. He was a fully grown man, aged between 26 and 45: and probably not older than 36. "We can't tell closer than that, because we have just the skull."
     His skull was probably buried very quickly - which may help explain why it survived, though the 'anoxic' conditions of the waterlogged mud where it has lain for millennia were also responsible. And there may have been a ritual or sacrificial element to his death. He was hanged first, and then his head cut off, quite neatly and precisely, leaving the skull and two vertebrae. This was buried in a pit in an area archaeologists are starting to associate with ritual. "There are a lot of very unusual pit fillings, which suggest this might have been some sort of ritual environment," Dr O'Connor said. They include the headless body of a deer; some antlers; and some pits with a single wooden stake in each. "They could have been used to mark the pit."

Edited from York Press (1 November 2010)

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