When the utility workers first dig into the ground, their only thoughts are likely of preserving this precious waterway. But that undoubtedly changes when the diggers encounter something completely unexpected. They unearth skeletons, in fact. Dozens of them. And when experts later arrive on the scene, they argue that the remains present some sinister hypotheses. Perhaps, the researchers say, these bones are the result of human sacrifice.
The ancient civilizations who lived on the British islands thousands of years ago could have had little idea that their actions would define an era. Nowadays, you see, historians refer to the time from approximately 800 BC to 43 AD as the U.K.’s Iron Age. And as it turns out, the period carried more significance than just the adoption of iron tools.
That’s because not only did the people of the Iron Age learn to work with metal, but they also cordoned themselves off into regional tribes. Each group had its own distinct way of life too. These peoples crafted their pottery differently, for example, and used iron in their own fashions as well.
This brings us to the English county of Oxfordshire, which has its fair share of Iron Age history. Nowadays, of course, this area northwest of London is famous as the home of the world-renowned University of Oxford. But during the Iron Age, Oxfordshire saw plenty of activity – and that has since resulted in more than 60 archaeological digs being undertaken in the region.
And, sometimes, these digs come completely out of the blue. In 2019, for instance, Thames Water had no intention of uncovering any sort of ancient artifacts during its scheduled large-scale works. The firm – which daily provides in excess of 500 million gallons of fresh water to its customers – actually simply hoped to protect one of its sources.
There runs a chalk stream through Oxfordshire, you see, and it is a source of fresh water that’s extremely scarce. But how does it work? Well, as rain falls, the water flows through a porous layer of chalk before eventually reappearing in springs. And, as the crystal-clear, mineral-rich water materializes, it maintains a thermal reading of 50° F.
Over time, however, England’s chalk streams have come under threat – mostly from human activity. For instance, watercress is readily cultivated in chalk streams, as the plant thrives in the water’s natural properties. Watercress also happens to cause harm to the areas in which it grows, though. And fisheries and improperly treated wastewater have also damaged these streams over the years.
So in 2019 Thames Water began an $18 million project to safeguard the Oxfordshire chalk stream. But as crews began their work in the area, the team found more than just a base layer of the porous rock. They also uncovered evidence of life from centuries ago.
After workmen embarked on the Thames Water job, in fact, they began to discover a plethora of artifacts. These included chunks of pottery, remnants of human shelters, tools and ancient remains of dead animals – all of which had been underground for centuries. So the utility company subsequently called in experts to take a closer look.
Cotswold Archaeology opened its doors in 1989, and, at first, its team of experts reportedly struggled to make ends meet. But their evident passion for their jobs has since seen these experts work across the U.K. And what was once a small set-up has matured over the past three decades into a large-scale operation. The firm now has more than 200 employees, in fact, based in multiple locations.
As Cotswold Archaeology’s chief executive, Neil Holbrook, writes on the company’s website, “The golden thread that runs through the last 30 years is the love of the past, which all of us who work for Cotswold possess.” But on top of that, the firm also makes raising public awareness of its work a priority.
So when Thames Water sought to bring in experts, the organization turned to Cotswold Archaeology to check out what had been unearthed. Project officer Paolo Guarino was then in charge of the resulting dig. And he and his team uncovered a vast array of ancient remnants that even included an ornamental comb.
Those items – and a few scarier finds – certainly had a story to tell. Yet according to Thames Water’s environmental manager, Chris Rochfort, this wasn’t the first time that the company had stumbled upon such archaeological discoveries. “We’ve found significant historical items on many previous projects. But this is one of our biggest and most exciting yet,” he said in an April 2019 press release.
Rochfort then highlighted the mutually beneficial nature of the dig. He said, “This is a £14.5 million project which is going to have real benefits for the environment by reducing the need to take water from the Letcombe Brook, a chalk stream which is a globally rare and highly important habitat for us to protect.”
“As a result, future generations will be able to enjoy it for years to come – and now they can also learn about their village’s secret history,” Rochfort concluded. Cotswold Archaeology’s chief executive Holbrook agreed. “The new Thames Water pipeline provided us with an opportunity to examine a number of previously unknown archaeological sites,” he added.
The Cotswold Archaeology team went on to explain the cultural and historical importance of what they’d found within the beds of the chalk stream. For one thing, then, the experts identified the artifacts as being around 3,000 years old. This meant that all of the items were remnants of the Iron Age.
These items represented a lifestyle about which historians have relatively limited knowledge too. Yet the experts do know that Iron Age civilizations – especially those in Oxfordshire – seem to have had a particular appreciation for the area’s natural supply of chalk. And not only because of the items that they hid within it.
For instance, the Uffington White Horse – another vestige of the same era – sits near where the Thames Water dig uncovered these Iron Age artifacts. An ancient civilization created the 360-foot-long representation of an animal by digging trenches in a hillside and then packing chalk into them. And the resulting white outline resembles – you guessed it – a horse.
Some say that the Uffington White Horse stands as a tribal symbol, as it’s reminiscent of animals seen on coins from the period. Yet archaeologist Joshua Pollard has hypothesized that the horse had been designed to reflect the movement of the Sun. The symbol may therefore represent the ancient belief that a horse transports the star over the Earth.
Regardless of the Uffington White Horse’s purpose, though, most experts believe that the people who built it had some connection to what was found within the nearby chalk stream. And that brings us nicely back to the Thames Water dig at the chalk stream. So, along with the Iron Age artifacts, the archaeologists uncovered something much more sinister there.
Yes, archaeologists also found skeletons of those who may have lived within the Iron Age community. In total, in fact, the team found 26 bodies, which they think date back to the Iron Age and even earlier. The experts also believe the bodies could be the results of human sacrifices.
“The Iron Age site… was particularly fascinating, as it provided a glimpse into the beliefs and superstitions of people living in Oxfordshire before the Roman conquest,” Holbrook stated. “Evidence everywhere suggests that burials in pits might have involved human sacrifice.”
Finding remnants of an Iron Age-era human sacrifice is certainly a rarity – especially in Europe. By that time period, you see, people in Asia, Africa and Europe had seemingly begun to view such practices as unacceptable. Yet it seems that the chalk-stream people just might have continued to partake in them.
But even if the Oxfordshire community’s skeletons hadn’t met their ends in a ritualistic manner, the Cotswold Archaeology team certainly discovered some of them in thought-provoking positions. For instance, the group shared an image of one of the skeletons they’d found – and the remains hadn’t been laid to rest in the traditional way.
“We’ve recently uncovered the remains of this individual, most likely a female, who had been placed in a pit with her arms draped over her head, her hands together, and the legs bent up with the knees wide apart,” the accompanying Facebook post read. “One foot appears to have been detached and placed, still articulated, by the right arm.”
The archaeologists discovered another set of remains beneath that skeleton too. “A neonate was found below the body of the adult, possibly interred at an earlier date,” the team wrote. The experts also said they hadn’t yet performed DNA tests that could link the skeleton to the newborn-baby remains buried underneath it.
Such a strange burial position was in fact commonplace during the Iron Age, though. The Facebook post even described multiple other methods that were employed in the same era. “There is increasing evidence for excarnation – burials placed above ground to decay – sometimes in rivers, before bodies or parts of bodies were then buried,” it read.
So, those performing the burial rites might have deliberately put the deceased in a compact position. “Apparently, tightly bound positions may therefore be indicative of the need to hold a body together during this curation. The deposition of only body parts, often cranial, may also be a part of the process,” the archaeologists explained.
The woman found in the chalk stream burial pit with her knees bent might not therefore have been in such a strange burial pose after all. At least, for the time period in which she died. “Although to us this may appear quite a shocking position, it’s not entirely unique in the Iron Age setting,” the Facebook post concluded.
Yet those who viewed the photo had plenty of theories as to why the skeleton had been placed in such an unorthodox final resting position. An archaeologist named Steven Birch, for instance, commented on the post and compared the image to a body he’d discovered in 2016. Birch said both his skeleton and the one in Cotswold Archaeology’s image had been laid to rest in much the same pose.
Birch’s skeleton, however, apparently showed signs of a physical attack. He wrote, “Forensic analysis suggested five individual blows to the head, which had killed the individual.” His team had therefore deemed the man’s death to have perhaps been part of a ritual – or maybe orchestrated as some form of punishment. So it’s possible that the Cotswolds woman had met the same fate.
Other viewers wondered if a female buried with her legs up in such a way – and with a baby beneath her – had passed away while giving birth. The Cotswold Archaeology team couldn’t confirm or deny such a theory without DNA evidence, however. The team did note, however, that they had found the baby’s remains far below the female skeleton.
At that point, in fact, the Cotswold Archaeology team were reluctant to present any sort of hypotheses as to what had happened to the skeleton. They hadn’t even been able to confirm the gender of the body in question yet, either.
Of course, much of what they unearthed in the chalk stream would require further testing to confirm the experts’ initial presumptions. The Cotswold Archaeology team consequently removed all of their finds from the area so they could perform such analysis – and Thames Water could continue its project, too.
Cotswold Archaeology project officer Guarino, who’d led the dig, said the discoveries could help experts to better understand life during the Iron Age. “These findings open a unique window into the lives and deaths of communities we often know only for their monumental buildings, such as hillforts or the Uffington White Horse,” he said.
Guarino also felt that he and the rest of the Cotswold Archaeology team would be able to paint a more accurate picture of the Cotswolds’ Iron Age inhabitants. “The results from the analysis of the artifacts, animal bones, the human skeletons and the soil samples will help us add some important information to the history of the communities that occupied these lands so many years ago,” he concluded.
The chief executive of Cotswold Archaeology shared a similar sentiment too. “The discovery challenges our perceptions about the past and invites us to try to understand the beliefs of people who lived and died more than 2,000 years ago,” Holbrook said. And that type of knowledge is of course what he and his associates seek to uncover – and share.
Since the Thames Water dig, then, the Cotswold Archaeology team have been kept busy with a series of finds on other projects – many of which came to light in ways similar to the chalk stream skeletons. For example, the archaeologists were called in when a road construction scheme in Wales revealed objects from the Bronze Age and Neolithic era.
And, as with the Thames Water dig, the project also shed light on age-old burial practices. In Wales, you see, the Cotswold Archaeology team found a cremation site. These remnants were from the Bronze Age, which preceded the Iron Age and occurred between 2500 BC and 800 BC.
So while the Cotswold Archaeology team have continued their quest for a better understanding of the past, Thames Water has gone back to work. And with the ancient bodies and artifacts safely out of the way, the utility company has refocused on its original mission. After all, the chalk stream project was always about looking to the future and protecting this rare body of water.