In the last couple of weeks two stories about ancient human sacrifice have made headlines. Archaeologists working at a location outside of Berlin discovered the broken bones of children, women, and teenagers at what is commonly known as the “German Stonehenge.” Meanwhile researchers at a site in what is now Turkey published their discovery of at least eleven children who were killed as part of an ancient ritualistic sacrifice.
These discoveries come from different time periods, cultures, and regions of the world but they have one thing in common: children. Apparently, when it comes to offerings to the gods, people have a tendency to select the youngest members of society to be their sacrifices.
The excavation of an extravagant tomb in a Bronze Age cemetery in Turkey dates the site to between 3100 and 2800 BCE. Some of the remains show evidence of stab wounds, and one male victim experienced injuries to his head and hip. The cause of death of some of the others interred there is less clear, but it is the manner in which the bodies are arranged that leads the investigators to argue that this was human sacrifice. The bodies of the eight young people (approximately eleven years old and older) were elaborately arranged around the remains of two younger children. They were then surrounded with lavish grave goods.
Lead scientist Dr. Brenna Hassett of the Natural History Museum in London said, “The burials are remarkable because of the youth of the individuals, the number that were buried and the large wealth of objects that were buried with them. Women and children in Mesopotamia were occasionally buried with grave goods, but they were normally personal belongings.” The mode of burial, therefore, suggests that something unusual happened here.
The discovery in Germany is more recent. The battered remains of children and teenagers were unearthed in pits at Pömmelte, a village to the Southwest of Berlin. Pömmelte is a circular prehistoric monument made of either wood or stone that was in use between 2300 BCE to about 2050 BCE. According to André Spatzier, an archaeologist at the State Office for the Preservation of Historic Monuments at Baden-Württemberg, these victims were thrown or pushed into the pit. At least one individual was found with bound hands, which might suggest that he was alive when he was buried. Many of the remains had fractured skulls and rib bones and were buried alongside drinking vessels, animal bones, and axes.
It is possible that those buried in the mass graves were killed in a raid or violent clash of some kind. But if this is the case, it is extraordinary that there are no adult men among those killed. The fact that ritual items were found there also suggests that this is no ordinary grave, argued Spatzier. A nearby burial site of men contained none of the ritual objects that make this site so remarkable.
In literature, when people write about real or imagined sacrifice their victims are also frequently children. From Iphigenia, the daughter of Agamemnon who was sacrificed in order to secure favourable winds for the invasion of Troy, to the death of Shireen in Game of Thrones, young girls are oddly likely to die at the hands of powerful fathers.
In the Bible, too, the daughter of Jephthah meets a seemingly sticky end when her father makes a vow to sacrifice the first thing to come out of his house upon his return home (Judges 11:30-31). In all three of these stories the father attempts to secure the consent of his ill-fated daughter. In Euripides’ account of the Iphigeneia story, Iphigeneia comes around and resolves to die for her people claiming the future victory at Troy as her legacy. But in Game of Thrones and the Bible, as Jodi Eichler-Levin has written, the victims agree to help their fathers without knowing what this “help” actually involves.
According to the logic of ancient Greco-Roman sacrifice, a person seeking to placate, cajole, bribe, thank, or otherwise engage with a deity through the medium of sacrifice should use “perfect” or “the best” offerings. This is why religious texts frequently refer to giving God the “first fruits” of a harvest and why there are so many stipulations about the kinds of animals that can be sacrificed to God. The point of these regulations is that a deity demands the best, so don’t go bringing your at-death’s-door goat to a temple for your sacrifice.
In practice, when it came to animal sacrifice, the sheer volume of animals being slaughtered on a daily basis meant that not every victim was perfect. The same reality applied in cases of human sacrifice. To be sure, there are stories of the sacrifice or near-sacrifice of the more highly valued first-born sons (think the story of the sacrifice of Isaac or the way that the plagues story in Exodus culminates in the slaughter of Egypt’s first-born sons), but, in general, ancient peoples seemed to have been more willing to sacrifice or imagine sacrificing young women or infants than fully-grown high-status men.
The early Christian writer Tertullian writes that when people in Carthage would sacrifice their infants at the Tophet, the mothers would play the ancient equivalent of peek-a-boo with their babies before they were dispatched into the flames as offerings to Baal. These deaths, though achingly poignant, focus on the value of young pristine life and untarnished female sexual purity rather than wealth and power.
What the focus on vulnerability and female virginity in these stories obscures is that these people were, for all practical purposes, socially and politically powerless. Children were economic assets in the ancient world, but infants could easily die before adulthood. And girls were not as valuable as boys. It is rare (though not completely unheard of) for a military leader to immolate himself for the benefit of the group, and when he did it was for glory, fame, and military conquest. When the truly powerful were sacrificed it was only by proxy: in order to ward off disease the Greeks would sometimes dress a prisoner of war or a pauper as the king and parade him around before throwing him out of the city and (according to some scholars) killing him. But the king himself never actually died; it was just a show.
If the interpretations of these sites are accurate, what these new discoveries show is something sadly obvious. Wherever you are in human history, when it comes to ritual death, it is the vulnerable who are sacrificed for the good of the powerful.