Were the broch builders ZOMBIE FLESH EATING CANNIBALS???

Touched on recently in the new book “Aspects of Prehistory: Caithness Archaeology” and debated for some time, throughout this thread we dare to delve into the depths of the macabre Iron Age and discover what is behind the claims of Iron Age ritual cannibalism!

During the time of the first excavations of brochs in Caithness, many human and animal body parts were discovered deposited within the buildings, commonly at doorways. During these first excavations by Laing and Huxley in the 1850-1860s, the idea of naked cannibal barbarian savages was a popular, if ‘romanticised’ view common amongst many antiquarians of the day.

Adding fuel to the fire of their imaginations was the discovery of a child’s jawbone alongside animal bones during the excavation of Keiss harbour broch. Laing and Huxley commented

“…this raises a strong assumption that these aboriginal savages were occasionally cannibals…I may add in conformation of the fact of occasional cannibalism that fragmentary human remains have been found in several other refuse heaps in caithness, and that professor Owen, whose attention has been specifically directed to the subject, considers the childs jaw bone referred to, has been splintered open precisely in the manner in which animal jaws are frequently opened by human agency to extract the juices of the denture canal, and no in the way in which a dog or wolf would have gnawed bone”.

Then and now this had been difficult for scholars and archaeologists to reconcile, and has been suggested that it may have been an isolated occurrence…… But was it really such a singular event?

In more recent times Bristol University found similar evidence to what was uncovered at Keiss Broch, with archaeologists uncovering evidence for the most recent cannibalism in the British Isles in a cave at Alveston, South Gloucestershire:

“…the most interesting find was an adult human femur, which 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 activity. 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. 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.”

So where did this idea of cannibalism come from before the archaeology was uncovered, and why is it seen as Roman propaganda?

The writings of both Diodorus and Strabo both relate that the Celtic inhabitants of Ireland had…

“…A gastronomic affection for the flesh of their deceased relatives”.

In modern times it has become more readily accepted that this has been entirely made up in order to create a savage enemy to justify Roman conquest.

Most frightening of all, however, is the descriptive reference from St. Jerome of the Attacotti warriors thought by some to be the tribe of Cat serving as mercenaries in the Roman legions.

“Why should I speak of other nations when I, a youth, in Gaul beheld the Attacotti, a British tribe, eat human flesh, and when they find herds of swine, cattle, and sheep in the woods, they are accustomed to cut off the buttocks of the shepherds, and the paps of the shepherdesses, and to consider them as the only delicacies of food.”

So it begs the question – can these slurs by Roman observers possibly be inspired by witnessing one of these rituals we see sporadically turning up in the macabre archaeology of Iron Age Britain? Or has this all just been made up to create a savage enemy for Rome to conquer? Where does this viewpoint leave the archaeology?

So what do you think? Perhaps our history books need fleshing out…


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