|21 April 2011
Evidence of a selective massacre at a hill fort in England
Archaeologists have found evidence of a massacre linked to Iron Age warfare at a hill fort in Derbyshire (England). For the first time in the UK, scientists have found carelessly-buried Iron Age skeletons which suggest a selective massacre of women and children.
Nine skeletons were discovered in a section of ditch around the fort at Fin Cop in the Peak District. Scientists believe 'perhaps hundreds more skeletons' could be buried in the ditch, with only 10 metres out of 400 so far investigated. Construction of the hill fort has been dated to some time between 440 BCE and 390 BCE, but it was destroyed before completion. The fort's stone wall was broken apart and the rubble used to fill the 400m perimeter ditch, where the skeletons were found. A second, outer wall and ditch had been started but not finished.
Dr Clive Waddington of Archaeological Research Services, who directed the excavations, said: "There has been an almost accepted assumption amongst many archaeologists that hill forts functioned as displays of power, prestige and status and that warfare in the British Iron Age is largely invisible. For the people buried at Fin Cop, the hurriedly constructed fort was evidently intended as a defensive work in response to a very real threat."
The finds include the skeleton of a pregnant woman crushed beneath a collapsed stone wall, one of a number of defences which appear to have been built hastily before some kind of catastrophe. The remains of a teenage boy were discovered huddled at the bottom of the ditch, along with seven more skeletons, all women or children. All were found in a 10m long section of ditch, the only part to be excavated so far. The ditch was 5m wide with 2m deep vertical edges and would have guarded a 4m high perimeter wall.
There could be gentler explanations for the deaths: none of the nine skeletons show signs of violence, suggesting death would have been from flesh wounds or suffocation - or possibly disease. Explanations could include a disastrous plague or the punishment of a household by the rest of the community. The absence of adult male remains in the ditch is also a puzzle, especially as traces of cattle, sheep and pigs were found, along with horse bones, which suggest that Fin Cop's inhabitants included people of high status.
Similar evidence of Iron Age warfare has not been found at other sites, probably because many hill forts are built on acidic soil that accelerate the decay of organic matter.
Hundreds of volunteers and schoolchildren have taken part in the excavations since 2009, and the campaign won the Best Community Project at the British Archaeology Awards in 2010. Local people are keen to find out more; Ann Hall of Longstone history group said: "Locals have always viewed the hill as a peaceful spot. Now we have uncovered sad evidence of an ancient massacre and learned that our well-loved landmark may also be a prehistoric war grave".
Edited from BBC News, Guardian.co.uk, Culture24 (18 April 2011), Derby Telegraph (19 April 2011)
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