Mystery over ancient remains of dozens of people in Somerset
Somerset’s Ham Hill today is a peaceful country park, but Martin Hesp has been learning the mysterious eminence was once a place of murder and mayhem.
Archaeologists are like detectives, they interpret past events - but a group of historians digging in Somerset are now combining the two professions having discovered the remains of dozens of people who died in savage and mysterious ways.
Some national newspapers have already billed the discoveries as evidence of mass-murder, but the archaeologists digging at Ham Hill in South Somerset say the ancient deaths are far more mysterious than could be explained by an orgy of antediluvian thuggery.
Some of the people whose remains have been found may have been killed by invading Romans – but if they were why were the corpses ripped clean of their flesh, which was a practice carried out by ancient Britons rather than by Italian led legions?
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Elsewhere on the hill, the remains of more than 20 people have been found in a mysterious enclosure – but archaeologists have no idea what the curious place was used for or why only skulls and other body parts of some victims have been discovered while entire skeletons of others lie alongside.
Was the enclosure simply a fortified farmstead which was overcome by murderous marauders – or, even more sinister, was it some kind of temple where human sacrifices were carried out?
These and many other questions will be asked for many months to come after archaeologists complete their excavations at the end of the week and return with their finds to specialist laboratories in Cambridge.
"We've got an enormous amount of material to be analysed and results to be published," Dr Marcus Brittain, project supervisor for the Cambridge Archeological Unit, told the Western Morning News. "But there are, indeed, a lot of dead bodies.
"However, they're not all necessarily from the same event," he added, scotching national newspaper stories of one terrible mass murder. "We have two main areas of excavation – one, on the defensive ramparts, has thrown up bodies that were dismembered and de-fleshed."
The WMN reported last week how researchers have been studying Ham Hill's massive defensive works, covering more than 80 hectares, for the past three years in an attempt to understand more about their function, and how such a large structure was defended by the local population. The final round of excavations being carried out at present have revealed more about how the fort was developed by its defenders in response to the Roman invasion.
Dr Brittain told us: "The wounds of the bodies found on the ramparts are the kind associated with Roman weaponry – but the odd thing is that de-fleshing is more of an indigenous practice. Five or six bodies have been found and they do tell us the ramparts didn't quite to their job.
"It is possible that they were attacked by the Romans – the ramparts were extended at that time and made a lot larger. At moment, from evidence we have, the story could go one or two ways: the indigenous inhabitants were in conflict with incoming Roman legions, there was a skirmish of some sort and the remains of the dead were dealt with in the local way."
The alternative scenario might be that a neighbouring clan may have attacked.
A more difficult problem facing the archaeologists are the murderous goings-on which occurred at Ham Hill a couple of centuries before...
"We have discovered a rectangular enclosure – the function of which is still open to theory – where a lot of human remains have been found," said Dr Brittain. "Most are partial – there a lot of heads where the remainder of the bodies have not been found - there are several semi-complete skeletons and one that's near complete.
"Altogether there are over 20 individuals from the first or second century BC – and they require further research. There are a couple of theories, but we need to get finer detail from carbon dating to see how everything is related."
The theories range from the enclosure being a fortified farmstead in which some terrible or violent incident occurred, to the place being some sort of ceremonial space in which important decisions were made at certain times of the year.
Asked if this meant it could have been a site where human sacrifices were carried out, Dr Brittain said: "There are 'bog bodies' (which have been found preserved in mires elsewhere) from that time and they have been shown to have been killed under a ceremonial procedure, so there is a possibility. We need our human remains specialist to analyse the remains. It's an ongoing process – we're still excavating here and things can change very quickly with every scrape of the trowel.
"Certainly, this is one of the most fascinating places I've worked on."