Human Sacrifice in Iron Age and Roman Europe and Beyond


The intention of this course is to provide a detailed study of human sacrifice in Iron Age and Roman Europe. The course is not ordered in strict chronological order, but as a series of themes, each of which relates to a set of conceptual issues. Throughout, emphasis is placed upon the ways in which a given set of evidence has been interpreted in different ways by different generations of archaeologists. In this way, the link between interpretation and analysis is clarified.

Sacrifice, like death is one of the great taboos of modern society. The notion that human sacrifice (‘murder most horrid’) and even cannibalism could be considered a most holy act is almost inconceivable. Yet the evidence for human sacrifice in north-west Europe, deriving from both archaeology and the testimony of Classical writers of the first centuries BC/AD, has to be confronted.

This is the challenge of this original, but often disturbing series of lectures. Having explained the nature of sacrifice in antiquity, and its central role in the relationship between the world of the living and the world of the dead, this course will look into the different aspects of the subject: the notion of flesh for the gods; rites of fire and blood; the significance of defleshing heads and of skulls; suffocation, whether by drowning, strangling or burying alive; the selection of victims and the evidence for the sacrifice of children.

In conclusion, reasons will be put forward for ritual murder and show how the multiple deposits of bog-bodies at sites like Tollund and Lindow illustrate the importance of place in the process of the sacrificial rite.

The archaeological evidence is often ambiguous but some of it is very convincing. There is no doubt that ritual murder did occur in antiquity and it would not be proper to discount the possibility of its practice among our European ancestors.

Skills to be promoted:

  • Integration of theory and evidence,
  • Evaluation of competing hypotheses.

Learning Outcomes:

  • A general awareness of the pattern and effect of human sacrifice in Iron Age and Roman Europe,
  • A grasp of competing interpretive frameworks on the subject of sacrificial rites and methods.