Leicester Archaeologists Find 5000-Year-Old Human Remains

By Corinne Field | 01 April 2004
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Shows a photograph of five timbers of varying lengths laid out on the grass.

Photo: shows timbers from an Anglo Saxon footbridge c. AD500, used to cross the marsh.

Bones of a man and woman dating back to 3000BC have been found in a gravel pit in Leicestershire. The extraordinary find, including a skull, vertebrae and long bones, are the earliest human remains ever found in the county.

A series of timber uprights for a footbridge dating back to AD500, remnants of the only early Anglo-Saxon bridge known in Britain, were also uncovered at the same spot.

Both discoveries were made at a gravel quarry near Watermead Country Park, Birstall eight years ago by archaeologists from the University of Leicester but investigations and analysis of the finds have only just been completed.

Dr Patrick Clay, Director of University of Leicester Archaeological Services said, "This is a remarkable discovery literally from the jaws of the gravel excavators."

Shows a photograph of a slab of black stone.

Photo: shows the Late Neolithic burnt mound during excavation.

The team from Leicester University also came across the skull and upper vertebra of another person dating back to the Bronze Age as well as a Neolithic 'burnt mound' consisting of heat cracked stone, which would have been used to boil water.

Dr Clay told the 24 Hour Museum how unusual it is to find artefacts from so many different time periods in the one place. All the finds were made in a 100 sq m radius and it was only when the results of the carbon dating came back that his team realised the extent of what they had found.

"We were amazed," said Dr Clay, "we thought everything we had found was from the Bronze Age, Bronze Age mound, remains and Bronze Age bridge."

Whilst all the finds are impressive it is the bones that have got people excited. Both sets of human remains were found in a peat deposit, originally an old channel of the River Soar and, although deposited in the marsh 2000 years apart, it seems their owners all suffered similarly violent deaths.

Shows a photograph of a vetebra bone. There is a mark on it where a knife has been used to cut the owner's throat.

Photo: shows vertebra from adult male with cut caused by throat being cut, c.1000BC Late Bronze Age

Analysis at the British Museum and the University of York has concluded that before the bodies were disposed of the blood supply was cut off quickly, suggesting they were put to death.

"The cut marks indicated that one person appears to have been deliberately killed around 800BC," said Dr Clay.

"There is evidence of people being sacrificed and their bodies being cast into marshes or bogs from Britain and Europe, notably Denmark, from this time onwards. Lindow Man, found in Cheshire in 1980, is an example of this."

Lindow Man, sometimes affectionately called 'Pete Marsh', was found in a peat bog in Cheshire. He died at the time of the Roman Conquest in England and it is widely believed that his horrific injuries signify a ritual killing.

Shows a timber lined trough, half buried in the ground.

Photo: shows the Late Neolithic timber lined trough used to heat water.

According to Dr Clay, what is special about the man and woman found in Leicestershire is that they are much older, dating back to the Neolithic period.

"The Neolithic date for two of the individuals, also suffering sudden death and being found in the same location is intriguing. Is this human sacrifice being practiced 2000 years earlier? If so, it is the earliest known in Britain," said Dr Clay.

A touring exhibition of some of the finds and photographs of the excavation is being prepared by Leicestershire County Council Heritage Services. It will go on tour to schools and libraries local to Birstall, where the excavation site was located, over the summer and is due to go on display at Charnwood Museum, Loughborough in September.

All images courtesy of University of Leicester Archaeological Services.

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