Sometime between 673 BC to 482 BC, in a region that would one day be known as East Heslington York, a mysterious man was hung by the rope and then decapitated ceremoniously. His severed head was placed face down in a hole and then buried quickly. Was this man a criminal sentenced to death by tribal justice or was this a sacrifice for the appeasement of their gods?
Such acts of ceremony were quite common during Bronze Age and early Iron Age Europe. Both sacrifice and decapitation were done to appease their gods as well as invoke fear into enemies that existed all around.
The ancient Britons and Celts also used the severed heads and slain bodies as markers for areas of water they held sacred. In later years, severed heads would be used as trophy displays for warriors and chiefs alike to reiterate their tales of battle and the gruesome acquisition of the sacrificed individual staring at them through their empty skeleton eyes.
In 2008, the darkened skull of an Iron Age man was discovered in a waterlogged pit at site A1, Heslington, North Yorkshire, UK. The dark stained cranium and mandible lay face down. Excavators believed this man the victim of a ritual killing . Though this individual’s name was forgotten, his remains would shock the archaeological world by revealing his skull, his neck, and his well-preserved brain.
But for the case of this individual, who was face down in a waterlogged pit, was his fate ceremonial? Why was this individual decapitated? And what caused the preservation of his brain?
Brief Cultural History of the Time of the Heslington Man
In Iron Age Britain (800 BC – 100 AD), those who were chosen for sacrifices were either criminals or prisoners of war. It was rare for people who were not prisoners of some sort to be sacrificed. Once these people were sacrificed, most of the bodies were submerged face down in the water, as seen with the northwesternLindow bog mummies.
In other cases, such as the skull of an Iron Age woman found on the banks of the Sowy River in Somerset, archaeologist Richard Bunning believed that her death was a particular kind of ritual, with her skull being deliberately placed in a watery environment . It was thought by the ancient Britons that most bodies of water were doorways into other realms, potentially where the gods inhabited.
But in the case of the Heslington man, who was hung and then decapitated, only his head was buried. Was his case just as ceremonial as the others?
According to the researcher Ian Armit of the University of Leicester, the human head carried a strong association with fertility, power, gender, and status across Iron Age Europe. This ceremony was seen through evidence of the removal, curation, and display of the head in recorded classical literature. Traditionally, this has been associated with a Pan-European “head cult”, which allegedly was used to support the idea of a unified Celtic culture in prehistory (Armit, 2012).
Ancient Celts used to embalm the decapitated heads of their enemies in order to place them on display. These sorts of trophies were mentioned in the works of Greek historians Diodorus and Strabo. Both indicated that Celtic warriors preserved the heads of enemies with the use of cedar oil.
In the case of the ancient Celts, the Greek texts described the ritual practices of the ceremonial removal of enemy heads killed in battle. They were embalmed for display in front of the victor’s dwellings. The weapons of the sacrificed would be placed alongside the severed heads.
As with the archaeological discoveries found in Le Cailar, France, the 2,500 year-old town on the Rhone River, several skulls were discovered among ancient weapons dating back to 3rd century BC. Le Cailar was a Celtic settlement to which the severed heads might have been on display until the area was abandoned by 200 BC.
Researchers believed that these heads were for the Celtic locals to gaze upon in awe. This differed from original beliefs of severed heads being warning sites for outsiders entering the settlement. It had been discovered that pinaceae oil was applied several times in order to maintain the skull’s preservation.
Though ‘trophy heads’ carried large importance during the Iron Age European societies, in the case of the Heslington skull, there was no evidence of any kind of embalming or smoking. So, the question remains, why did his brain stay preserved?
Archaeological Finding of Heslington’s Skull
In August of 2008, during the construction of the University of York’s new campus, Mark Johnson of the York Archaeological Trust unearthed a darkened human skull, face down at A1 site in Heslington East, York, UK. Alongside this find were a small number of animal bone fragments.
Furthermore, several former water channels were also identified along with linear ditches sharing the 2,500 year-old prehistoric date. Drainage water from springs and seeps along the moraine slope had been adapted into a series of wells, two of which contained lining made of wicker. These showed signs that they had been used from the Bronze Age (2,100 BC- 700 BC) and into the Middle Iron Age (800 BC – 150 BC).
Excavations were done in the south where dozens of pits, which revealed occupation waste, hinted of more ceremonial functions persisting from the Bronze Age through the early Roman period. Many were marked with single stakes. These marked pits consisted of ‘burned’ cobbles of local stone.
Other artifacts consisted of the headless body of a red deer which was buried in a paleochannel, and an unworked red deer antler which was found in an Iron Age ditch. But of all the finds, the most fascinating was the face down darkened human skull of site A1. It was embedded in a moist, dark brown organic-rich, soft sandy clay.
Examination of the skull revealed fractures of a traumatic displacement of the vertebra at the base. Nine horizontal sharp force cut marks made by thin-bladed instruments, were visible on the frontal aspect of the centrum. The cut marks indicated that the head was severed after the individual was hung.
After further examination of the skull, it was noted to contain a resilient mass which was not consistent with the dark brown clay and silt. As researchers inspected the matter through the endocranial cavity through the foramen magnum, it was revealed that there was a presence of yellow material that was eventually revealed to be the brain.
Due to this miraculous discovery, a multi-disciplinary team, led by Dr. Sonia O’Connor, was assembled in order to investigate the brain as well as the circumstances leading to its preservation.
Scientific Analysis and Results of Heslington’s Brain
In further examination, O’Connor’s team revealed the skull to be from a male. By the analysis of the skull suture closures, as well as the molar attrition, the age at death was estimated to be between 26-45 years of age. The skull revealed no evidence of disease.
As mentioned prior, an examination of the two associated vertebrae revealed the arch of the second column to be fractured on either side resulting in what appeared to be traumatic spondylolisthesis, which was most likely caused by hanging. Nine cut marks made by a sharp instrument were also found between two vertebrae, meaning that the head had been carefully severed after death.
The brain matter had shrunken in the cranium but was still recognizable. Although the surface morphology of the organ was preserved and intermixed with layers of mixed sediment, its preservation was attributed to several factors with where the severed head was buried.
The waterlogged pit contained anoxic soil which deprived the ground of any oxygen. Another factor was that the brain had undergone chemical changes as well as the conditions it underwent when it was buried. No signs of adipocere or fatty compound tissue showed any process of decay.
This meant that the head was buried in the ground immediately after decapitation, leaving no time for decomposition to set in. Another factor is that in most cases with the process of bodily decay, bacteria swarm from the gut, which then spreads throughout the body via blood vessels. Because the head was severed and drained of blood, there was no opportunity for the bacteria to contaminate it.
On further examination, the team also used the opportunity to take a DNA sample from the brain. Through the DNA sequencing, the individual gave a close match to Haplogroup J1d, which was first seen in individuals from Tuscany and to the Near East.
This DNA sequence group has not been identified in Britain yet; however, further sampling of the British population may reveal more individuals containing this haplogroup. O’Connor also surmises that this group may have existed in Britain’s past and might have disappeared through genetic drift.
Though much information about this individual has been revealed through archaeological and forensic studies, the main questions remain to the mystery of his death. Why was he selected and why was his head buried so quickly in the ground?
The Study of the Heslington Man Continues
Though the primary examinations have concluded to the time, the death, and the potential group this individual belonged to, and further investigations will be continued indefinitely, more questions arise, such as why this individual was killed. In many instances of other severed head cases, they were usually either war trophies or ceremonial sacrifices made for the appeasement of the gods.
Historically, the Celts were known to decapitate prisoners of war to place their severed heads on display. This practice also required the constant preservation of these heads by way of embalming oils. This concept was proven by archaeologist Rejane Roure from the Paul Valery University of Montpellier in France.
Roure and her colleagues examined bits of skull excavated at Le Cailar, once a fortified Celtic settlement in southern France. In her chemical analysis of the Le Cailar skull fragments, signatures of resin and plant oils were found. Also, cutmarks suggested that the brains had been removed.
With the Heslington skull, there was no sign of embalming or smoking. The skull was severed and immediately buried in the ground, meaning this person might not have been killed in battle or deemed worthy for display. Another fact is that the brain itself was not only present in the cranium but remarkably well preserved by natural occurrences.
In other instances, bodies and heads would be buried face down by watery places considered doorways to other realms. Like the case mentioned prior with Bunning’s study of the Iron Age woman found in the banks of the Sowy River in Somerset, the Heslington skull was found face down in a waterlogged pit. His placement potentially suggests such a fate.
According to historical accounts from both the Greeks and the Romans, the ancient people of Britain believed that natural bodies of waters were doorways into other realms and therefore needed human sacrifice in order to send their offerings to the gods.
However, as writer Riley Winters states in her article about Iron Age Britain , the source which is known about sacrifice exists in fragments written by Greek and Roman historians; Romans who carried a negative bias towards the Britons such as Julius Caesar , Luncan, and Tacitus. Though they did not think highly of the ancient British people, their accounts are the only ones which give a mention to the ceremonial burnings, hanging, stabbing, throat-cutting, and a variety of other methods performed in human sacrifice .
With these facts mentioned, one could paint a more vivid picture of the final days of the Heslington man. The Heslington man might have been an outsider who was captured. He would have been deemed worthy of blessed sacrifice by the Celts as they completed work in diverting streams and waterways for their wells.
During this ceremony, he might have been blessed by a priest right before he was dragged to a tree and hung until dead. Once life had left him, he would have been lowered from the tree for his head to be severed from his body as others worked at digging a hole.
His head would then be carefully placed facing downward awaiting his ceremonial passage into the other realm. If only the ancient Celts knew that the mysterious Heslington man’s thoughts would remain intact until modern scientists discovered his brain, finally bringing him rest.
But we will never know if this was the case. Hopefully, further studies will reveal more of his past.