- Can codex sources cast any light on the recent Ancient-Britons-were-blood-drinking-cannibals shock-horror press stories?
The stories appearing over the past month cf in the Daily Mail, BBC online news, the Guardian etc (even a skull-cups cartoon in contemporary satire mag Private Eye), that Ancient Britons practiced bloody rites, eating dismembered bodies and drinking out of skulls sawn in half, are based on archaeological finds which actually stretch back some years, and which relate to various early groups over a period of tens of thousands of years.
In my electronic archives are a series of such items stretching back to 1991, with an increase in coverage in the last few years. These archeo digs referred to show physical evidence [human bones with butcher’s cut-marks and sometimes human teeth-marks] that this was common practice across Europe for hundreds of thousands of years. The news stories use “early” man as broadly as possible to mean so early they're not even homo sapiens sapiens. The accounts often refer to practices all the way back to the Neanderthals – who of course are now surmised to have been eaten up by their successors, Stone Age man. There have also been stories about first Stone Age people, the Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers who flourished near the end of the last Ice Age [c12000 BC] practising ritual human sacrifice. These are based largely on a 2007 paper in the archeo-historians’ in-house mag Current Anthropology. (Interestingly, this highlighted the issue, which we shall return to presently, whether people suffering from dwarfism got special treatment.)
Around Easter 2009, you may recall (we covered it at the time) those “Cannibal Druids” stories which turned out to be based on press releases promoting a National Geographic documentary claiming the Druids practised human sacrifice and cannibalism. The evidence was a bone in the 2000 find of the mass-grave cave find at Alveston north of Bristol - a thigh-bone with apparent cutmarks. This was talked up by media-friendly Dr Mark Horton (advisor on the BBC’s unintentionally-funny, shortlived archeo-adventure TV-drama series "Bonekickers"), who suggested the dead could have been sacrificed to the gods. However he balked at claiming Druids were cannibals, but said it might just have beeen someone who was, well, starving. In 2009, there were also press stories concerning the subsequent Neolithic era, based on a report, in the archaeologists’ journal Antiquity, of evidence of mass cannibalism being found by French archaeologists at a 7,000-year-old site in south-west Germany, with the human remains including children being ‘spit-roasted.’ This was near the start of the early Neolithic period, when supposedly peaceful farmers were first supplanting our semi-nomadic Palaeolithic and Mesolithic hunter-gatherers. The notion supported by some New Age proponents that the Neolithic was a peaceful era has suffered repeated blows to the head over the past decade, due to finds of corpses with wounds caused by arrows, spears, axes etc.
Contrast this with the 1991 BritArch piece, “The Edible Dead” by the archaeologist who was academic consultant to the Channel 4 documentary series Cannibal, based on similar British finds from “the mid-1st millennium BC,” about professional opposition – “Many archaeologists vigorously deny that cannibalism has ever been normal practice in Britain or elsewhere, in prehistory or at any more recent period.” He also says references to cannibalism have been removed from textbooks after anthropologists called them a slur on ancient or primitive peoples. (Some would include here Pliny’s reference to cannibalism, along with other ‘shocking’ practices, among the 1st C. AD Irish.)
The arguments are complicated by the different types of prehistoric cannibalism – dietary (consume flesh and/or bone marrow for protein in hard times), funerary (eat a bit of your dead kin as a magical kinship bond etc), war-trophy (eat a bit of your enemies to share their power), and the currently-highlighted blood-drinking type of human sacrifice (share in a human sacrifice to help appease the gods?). Some evidence may come from ‘excarnation’ burial rituals, where skeletons are re-buried, after de-fleshing by some means other than relatives eating them, in mausoleum-style megalithic tombs which were open to relatives to visit. Finally, there is "medicinal cannibalism," which survived longest in Europe - a 2009 feature in Der Spiegel's Online's international edition pointed out that Europeans continued to drink blood and mix ground-up human skull and cadaver parts into ‘medicine’ well into the Christian era, practices by kings and popes and commoners alike, until the 18C Enlightenment kick-started modern medical practices. (If you can’t access that link, the Guardian also did a more recent similar feature in the midst of the 2011 controversy, here.)
This recent round of press stories with headlines like ‘Ancient Brits Ate Dead And Made Skulls Into Cups’ is based largely on finds at Gough's Cave in Cheddar Gorge [pictured above] in Somerset. Again, it deals with the pre-Keltic Stone age peoples who lived here before the Iron (and possibly Bronze) Age Keltic tribes appeared, in this case towards the end of the last Ice Age [c12-15,000 BC]. This is before people knew how to make pottery or metal bowls or cups, so they would have had to use natural receptacles like skulls for fluid containers. Nevertheless, it still fits the historians’ common schema of characterising all pre-Roman British peoples as savage barbarians. In this case the people are pre-Keltic, perhaps the early Stone Age forerunners of the aboriginal or native people briefly referred to by Caesar as still living in “the interior” when he invaded in 55-54 BC. ("The interior portion of Britain is inhabited by those whom they say that is handed down by tradition that they were born in the island itself … Most of the inland inhabitants do not grow corn, but live on milk and flesh, and are clad in skins.” --Caesar’s Gallic Wars, ch 5.)
Note this description indicates a pre-agricultural people, possibly nomadic, still leading a hunting-herding lifestyle that predates the so-called Neolithic Revolution. Caesar also mentions tin is produced in the interior, which may qualify them as technologically Bronze rather than Stone Age, as tin was used to smelt good quality bronze. They may have traded tin with the Keltic tribes Caesar says lived along the coasts (the tinworker or ‘tinker’ motif is one we will come back to presently). The later Kelts themselves, on the Continent at least (i.e. the Gauls), were reported by Roman encyclopaedist Diodorus to collect and embalm in oil trophy heads of enemies and hang them on their war horses or over doorways (rather like modern hunters mounting animal trophy heads on their wall). One interpretation of this is that you cut off and take your enemy’s head so he will have no proper burial. Beheading has remained an official form of execution in many countries, and worry over this practice in turn could explain the popularity of tales of hauntings by headless ghosts.
Though the press plays this down, the evidence behind the latest stories, that skulls were likely shaped into cups, as well as the earlier ones on finds of more human skulls compared to full skeletons, helps to “refute the hypothesis of cannibalism” (to quote the archeo source, here).
There don’t seem to any references in the old sources to cannibalism apart from Pliny, whose claims about the wild Irish don’t seem based on any first-hand knowledge. Another late Roman reference [4th C. AD], by St Jerome, implies a possibly Irish ‘subject’ or tribute-paying tribe known as the Atecotti, active near Hadrian’s Wall, were still cannibals while in Roman service against the Picts, but that whole business now seems dubious.
Our “father of history” Herodotus says that around 500 BC the Scythians of western Asia kept blood-drinking cups made from enemy skulls, and the Scythians are sometimes cited in early history-of-Britain codices by Bede [c 735 AD] et al as Pictish ancestors, for what’s that’s worth. Human sacrifices were reportedly [cf Caesar, Tacitus, Lucan] done by drowning in a bog, by burning inside a giant wicker figure, or ordinary throat-slitting. The description of the event which prefaced the Boudiccan revolt of AD 61, the Roman siege of the Isle of Mona [Anglesey] as a Druid stronghold, ends with a description by Tacitus how the legionaries, after slaughtering women and priests alike, hacked down the Druids’ sacred groves and altars dripping with the gore of sacrificed prisoners, as part of Rome’s “civilising mission.” (This is the phrase used in a standard-reference textbook by the prolific archeo-writer Leonard Cottrell, who says Anglesey is proof we should not be cynical about the Roman empire’s benign influence.)
There’s always a grim irony when Roman writers and Romanophile English historians express tabloid-style shock-horror outrage at what were the religious and ritual practices of “barbarian” societies when Roman practices even by their own accounts were so bloodthirsty. (“Roman holiday” comes from the phrase “butchered to make a Roman holiday” used by Byron, for the sort of bloodbaths served up in the arena as Rome’s favourite form of popular entertainment.) The best-known surviving [found in the 1st C AD Codex Traguriensis] literary work referring to Rome’s own hypocritical and barbaric attitudes, Petronius's satire the “Satyricon,” has a final sequence of Romans agreeing to commit cannibalism, not for religious or starvation reasons, but simply as required by the will of a pedantic poet to obtain shares in his fortune. (If you can’t stomach the literary version, the scene also concludes the 1969 film version, Fellini Satyricon, without anything explicit onscreen.) In the story, to rationalise their cannibalism, the legacy-hunters cite various other historical examples of cannibalism known to the Roman writer. (He is thought to have been the same Petronius who was advisor to Nero; again if you prefer a film version as an intro, see MGM’s 1950 Quo Vadis, where he is played by Leo Genn to Peter Ustinov’s Nero.) These references are to the people of the Spanish city of Saguntum eating their dead when besieged by Hannibal, as did the famine-struck folk at Petelia in south Italy; and to Roman general Scipio ‘Africanus’ entering the besieged city of Numantia and finding mothers with half-eaten babies at their breasts. There’s seemingly no reference to Gauls or Kelts doing the same, though there are some vague early Greco-Roman references elsewhere to the forebears of the Kelts in southern Europe, the Ligures, being head hunters.
But is there any evidence in the oldest surviving literature of the Gauls or Kelts, perhaps to it being practiced by earlier, possibly native, cultures? Surviving literature does mention the earlier displaced people, known in Celtic as the Aes Sidhe [pr ‘shee], which I take to mean People Of The Seats, in the ceremonial sense of court seats - ancient mounds where oath-taking and such ceremonies were conducted, perhaps because these would be solemnized by ancestral burials within the mound, so any oath or testimony would be taken as sworn on the bones of one’s ancestors. (In the collection of Welsh folktales called the Mabinogion, a mound like this is mentioned, at Narberth.)
The Irish pre-Keltic people the Tuatha de Danaan were also said to have retreated underground, inside the hollow hills or prehistoric mounds which still dot the landscape. Later folktale translations use the term fairy folk for such ancient magic-dealing people, but this is deceptive, for these were nothing alike the cute doll-size fairies of Victorian children’s books. They may have been shorter by comparison with the Keltic people the old stories would be told to, but they were not tiny, and they were feared rather than regarded as cute, referred to with a careful determination not to offend, by euphemisms such as the Good Folk, the Peaceful Folk, and so on. The word “faerie” originally referred to the state of being enchanted by these folk with their eerie powers (think of it as fay-eerie). The root word fay survived into the Arthurian Romance, as the enchantress Morgan Le Fay. (There are other “fays” in the romances, like the Lady Of The Lake.) Blood drinking, cannibalism, and the like are not mentioned anywhere in accounts of the Sidhe, who are not bloodthirsty in any sense.
As late as 1691, a Scots clergyman, Robert Kirk, wrote a codex-style book [printed in 1815], The Secret Commonwealth Of Elves, Fauns And Fairies, which claimed these folk still existed in an Otherworld which could manifest into our own. (After his death from a stroke while out walking over a ‘dun-shi’ or fairy mound, his successor claimed Kirk was not really dead: he had been struck down and ‘taken’ by the Good Folk, angry at his giving away their secrets; Sir Walter Scott, recounting this, tells of a scheme to rescue Kirk, which in the event misfired.) Kirk depicted them as continuing to exist in a parallel but overlapping realm, akin to folktales of innocents who enter a fairy mound or hollow hill to be entertained by lavish gifts and hospitality – only to return to find their gifts are sticks and leaves, and (shades of Rip Van Winkle) decades have passed since they left.
From the 1880s through 1920, another Scots scholar, David MacRitchie, published a series of monograph collections (the one usually cited by commentators is The Testimony Of Tradition), in which he claimed some of these (not all) old folktales reflected a less supernatural survival of these folk. His thesis was that some of these tales of brownies and the like were a memory of the last survivors of a shorter [dwarf-like?], darker, pre-Keltic people, eking out a wretched existence in remote spots – hence the practice of leaving out milk etc for them to avoid trouble. The Scots New Year’s custom called First Foot is thought to refer to this – it being good luck if your first caller of the year is a ‘dark’ man bring a gift – the surmise being this represents a renewal of an annual peace accord. You could alternatively try to keep them away by hanging an iron object like a horseshoe over your door – for they feared iron, as they had no Iron Age technology, only bronze [tin + copper], hence the generic name for such marginalised folk ‘tinkers,’ short for tinworkers. (The plan to rescue the Rev Robert Kirk mentioned above as being held in Fairyland involved throwing an iron dagger over his head to free him.) There is also a 12C reference to “picts” (perhaps piskies, Scots dialect for pixies, would be a better translation) who were short and swarthy underground dwellers fearful in daylight of warrior peoples. In a long series of books and monographs, MacRitchie argued that fairies, picts, and some of the people misnamed Gypsies (i.e. not Romany folk) were survivors of an aboriginal race. (The profession of itinerant metalworker who mends pots and pans etc. was often associated with so-called gypsies or Irish “travellers” – who are now thought by some academics to be a pre-Keltic remnant.)
Here we have a possible basis for regarding Keltic folktales as more than fiction. This ‘anthropological’ explanation is sometimes adopted by historical novelists who wish to incorporate these elusive folk into a reasonably historical setting. (The earliest example of this I’ve come across is a 1912 children’s book about Robin Hood by Henry Gilbert.) The question is – do the tales themselves depict the fairy folk as cannibals? The answer is no: they might steal your milk, cast a spell on your husband or son, kidnap your baby (leaving in its place a sickly 'changeling'), or blight your crops, but the cannibal motif is conspicuous by its absence.
The “anthropological” theory of fairytales has not gone anywhere since MacRitchie wrote. But then how could it? His books are full of speculative suggestions that all the early peoples of Europe, from Lapps to Basques, belonged to a dwarf-like “pygmy” race, and this is of course confounded by DNA studies showing diverse localised origins. Over-enthusiastic eccentric Victorian theories of racial origins have little place today. However the media tend to still eat this sort of sensationalism up, with the current skull-cup stories probably just one step away from being incorporated into the next version of the Horrible Histories book/TV/CD series, where the emphasis is relentlessly on gory lifestyle details (“Did you know in the Savage Stone Age, the Ancient Britons liked to drink your blood and eat your brains? Uggh!”) That said, the situation may be otherwise not so straightforward, and we’ll look at that next time, as the underlying issues tie in with some upcoming films.