Crazy Facts About Britain Before Christianity
Christianity truly began to take hold in Britain around the turn of the 7th Century, with the arrival of Anglo-Saxons. Prior to this, human habitation on the British Isles went back more than 30,000 years. Yet most British history we know through films, books, and popular consciousness concerns Christian Britain. What was Britain like before Christianity? Savage? Refined? Confused? All of these things? Read on for crazy facts about pre-Christian Britain.(Author's Note: Ireland was left almost entirely off this list because it's not part of Britain. Northern Ireland was left off due to the controversial nature of its status within the British Isles.)
The Ancient British Practiced CannibalismArtifacts found in a cave in Somerset, England, suggest that the people of prehistoric England were big-time cannibals. Human remains with bite marks, and carefully sculpted human skulls that look like bowls, suggest that the people of this area were eating their own dead. The practice seems to have been primarily practical—why let good meat go to waste? Primitive stone knives were used to carve meat and muscle from bodies, while bite marks were found on ribs and even toes.
Humans Were Murdered in Brutal SacrificesPhoto: Forest Eyes / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0Well-preserved bodies found in bogs suggest human sacrifice in pre-Roman Britain. These bodies exhibit brutal wounds: one was hit so hard in the back of the head, skull fragments went into his brain and his teeth broke; his throat was then slit. Roman writings also attest to human sacrifice, though beyond descriptions of the physical killings, its unclear whether the Romans actually knew what they were talking about.
"The Wicker Man" Is RealPhoto: Thomas Pennant / National Library of Wales
Druids performed all manner of rituals in Britain, including, according to Roman sources, human sacrifice. One form of druidic human sacrifice entailed building a large, hollow man out of wicker, filling it with human tributes, and then lighting it on fire. Some scholars suggest Romans made up the part about the wicker man containing human sacrifices (seriously, wouldn't a giant structure made of wicker just collapse if filled with the weight of human bodies?) —the druids simply burned an effigy of a man as an offering to gods.
The Oldest Human Remains In Britain Are of a Young Shaman Covered in Red PaintThe Red Lady of Paviland (actually the remains of a young man covered in red ochre body paint, who was probably in his 20s when he died) are the oldest human remains yet found in Britain, at 34,000 years old. The Red Lady was buried along with various artifacts in a cave in Gower, Wales; the nature of the burial makes the site the oldest ceremonial burial ground in Western Europe. No one is sure who the Red Lady was, but many speculate he may have been a shaman or mystic.
It Took Twenty Years of Training to Become a DruidPhoto: Bernard de Montfaucon
Extensive written documentation of British history begins with the arrival of the Romans, whose records provide great information on the druids. As it turns out, the druids weren't weird magical people in hoods who stalked swamps, but rather educated citizens of pre-Roman Britain tasked with a number of important functions; they served as judges, teachers, philosophers, scientists, and religious leaders. According to information recorded by Julius Caesar, it took 20 years of training to become a druid, but to many it was worth the effort—druids didn't pay tribute to the nobles and weren't expected to participate in war.
Skara Brae: A Complete Ancient Settlement Older Than the Great PyramidsPhoto: Dorli Photography / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0In the 19th century, a giant storm tore through Orkney, an island off the northern tip of Scotland. The storm ripped open the earth, revealing Skara Brae, an ancient, neolithic settlement protected by sand and grass for thousands of years. A small cluster of ancient dwellings, Skara Brae contains intact beds, fireplaces, dressers, and even rudimentary cabinets, as well as smaller items like jewelry, tools, and games. The village was inhabited from about 3200 BCE until 2500 BCE, making it older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids. It is the most complete neolithic site in Britain.