Around 3,000 years ago, a Neolithic woman was buried with her arms bound behind her head and her amputated feet placed on either side of her body. Another individual—one of 26 ancient Britons whose remains were unearthed during preparations for the laying down of a pipeline in Oxfordshire, England—was laid to rest nearby with their decapitated head placed at their feet.
As Thames Water, the company behind the project that led to the discovery of the macabre burial pit, explains in a press release, archaeologists suspect the skeletons are linked with ritualized human sacrifice practiced by the Iron Age residents of what is now known as the Childrey Warren settlement. In addition to the 26 sets of human remains, researchers combing through the site found evidence of dwellings, household items such as pottery and a decorative comb, and animal carcasses.
The Childrey Warren group is best known for creating the Uffington White Horse, a football field-sized chalk sculpture that stretches over a hill in Uffington, Oxfordshire. Little is known about these ancient Britons, who occupied the island prior to the Roman conquest of the 1st century A.D., but as Cotswold Archaeology’s project officer Paolo Guarino says in a statement, the newly recovered artifacts are poised to “open a unique window into the lives and deaths of communities we often know only for their monumental buildings.”
The unusual graves found at Childrey Warren fall under the category of “deviant” burials, George Dvorsky reports for Gizmodo. Although this term refers to burial practices that differ from the norms of a given culture, Dvorsky points out the individuals who participated in such activities would probably not have considered them aberrant. Instead, it’s likely that such burials held ritual significance poorly understood by humans today.
Earlier this year, archaeologists conducting excavations at Great Whelnetham in Suffolk, England, uncovered a similarly perplexing mass grave: As Dvorsky notes in a separate Gizmodo article, some 40 percent of the 52 skeletons found at the site, which dates to around 1,700 years ago, had been decapitated (luckily for the individuals involved, this process took place after death). An estimated 60 percent of the remains there were buried in a deviant manner.
In a Facebook post, Cotswold Archaeology writes that there is a growing body of evidence for excarnation, a term that refers to the practice of leaving the body to decay above ground or in the water before the final burial of the bones. To hold the body together during this process, Iron Age Britons may have tightly bound the limbs, as seen with the Childrey Warren woman’s arms.
For now, the remains and artifacts—first excavated “several months” ago, according to a spokesperson speaking with CBS News’ Christopher Brito—are in storage awaiting forensic investigation, paving the way for the Thames Water pipeline project to move forward.
Further analysis will be necessary to determine the circumstances of the individuals’ burials, but as Gizmodo’s Dvorsky observes, violent ritual sacrifice is far from the only explanation for the find. It’s also possible that the deceased were victims of more conventional executions or met their demise in a different nature entirely.
“The discovery challenges our perceptions about the past,” Cotswold Archaeology CEO Neil Holbrook says in the statement, “and invites us to try to understand the beliefs of people who lived and died more than 2,000 years ago.”