It’s 2004, and the wind sweeps across a barren field not far from England’s southeast coast. The site has been earmarked for housing, but those plans have been put on hold because of a grisly discovery. Hidden under the soil workers have found scores of human bones. It will take two seasons for the mass grave to be fully excavated by archeologists – and a further 15 years before a television documentary sheds new light on this fascinating find.
For 3,000 years, this far-flung corner of England had kept its gruesome secret hidden from prying eyes. But in 2004 as archeologists excavated the site of the planned housing estate, they finally uncovered the horrifying truth. Over the course of nine centuries, more than two dozen people were buried on the Isle of Thanet, sparking a mystery that has captivated the world.
Beginning in the Bronze Age and continuing well into the Iron Age, the people of the Isle of Thanet laid both adults and children to rest in the mass grave. However, this was no convenient arrangement to dispose of bodies after war or disease. According to archeologists, some of these remains had been deliberately arranged as part of some long-forgotten ritual or rite.
In the years since the discovery, researchers have theorized about the reasoning behind these ancient burials. Then, in January 2020, a documentary aired on the British television network Channel 4. In it, a team of experts talked through the fascinating discovery – and revealed some incredible insights into the distant past.
Located in the English county of Kent, the Isle of Thanet is a spit of land that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean. Today, the name is a misnomer, as the area is connected to the mainland by a strip of land. However, as recently as 600 years ago, the remote spot really was cut off from the rest of Britain.
On this once-island sits a place known as Cliffs End Farm, some 2.5 miles west of the seaside town of Ramsgate. And back in 2004 a local company was preparing to build an estate of luxury houses on the land. But before it could begin work on the project, Millwood Designer Homes needed to take a closer look beneath the surface.
On the Isle of Thanet, researchers have found evidence to suggest that the region was inhabited as far back as the Stone Age. And as such, it is common for developers to conduct archeological surveys of any new sites. At Cliffs End Farm, those in charge decided to call in the team at Wessex Archaeology to carry out some excavations.
According to the team, it wasn’t the first time that Cliffs End Farm had yielded some interesting historical finds. Apparently, previous investigations revealed that the site had been inhabited for thousands of years, dating back to at least the Bronze Age. Then, about a century later, an Early Saxon settlement had been established at the same location.
Beginning in 2004, however, archeologists uncovered the true extent of ancient activity at Cliffs End Farm. And as well as a number of enclosures dating back to the Bronze Age, they discovered a cemetery associated with the Anglo-Saxon people. Moreover, they also found evidence of six monuments, known as barrows, at the site.
However, the real star of the show was the mass grave that archeologists discovered at Cliffs End Farm. Thought to date back to the Bronze Age, the mortuary site is believed to have been in use until the Iron Age, spanning a period of roughly 900 years. There, experts discovered the remains of 23 individuals.
What really got people talking, however, was the unique positioning of these human remains. Apparently, they had been carefully arranged in specific poses before being buried beneath the ground. And while some of the skeletons remained whole, others had been separated into individual piles of bones.
But that wasn’t all. In addition to the human remains, archeologists also discovered that a number of animals had been buried at the site. Apparently, this included the partial or entire carcasses of cows, lambs and horses. And alongside these various bones, a collection of ancient artefacts had been deliberately arranged.
Interestingly, these weren’t the only things discovered alongside the human remains at Cliffs End Farm. Apparently, a number of grave goods were also found inside the burial pit. And as well as weapons such as shields and spears, archeologists also uncovered beads, brooches and other decorative items.
Initially, archeologists reported that the oldest of the individuals buried at the site was 55, while the youngest was six. And in a shocking twist, it soon became clear that the remains had been subjected to a number of gruesome practices. In some cases, for example, the organs and flesh of the deceased had been removed.
With the help of English Heritage, a charity which looks after historic sites, researchers were able to date the remains using sophisticated radiocarbon techniques. And soon, a fascinating narrative began to emerge. However, it wasn’t just the age and arrangement of the Cliffs End Farm skeletons that made them unusual.
Amazingly, researchers also discovered that some of the people buried at this site had traveled from far and wide to reach the Isle of Thanet. And while it might seem difficult to believe, the experts were able to establish that fact just from looking at their teeth. Apparently, it’s possible to trace journeys with amazing accuracy by analyzing the oxygen and strontium isotopes in enamel.
According to experts, these isotopes come from drinking water and can be used to trace humans to specific parts of the world. In this case, for example, analysis revealed that nine of the individuals found at Cliffs End Farm came from the surrounding area. However, a number of others came from much further afield.
Supported by English Heritage, the team at Wessex Archaeology were able to establish that eight of the individuals had traveled more than 1,000 miles. In fact, researchers believe that they initially came from the regions that make up modern-day Sweden and Norway. Meanwhile, an additional five sets of remains were traced to a different part of the world.
In this case, experts believe that the individuals came from somewhere in the western Mediterranean, such as Spain, or perhaps even north Africa. According to the editor of the journal British Archaeology, it was a fascinating discovery. “This is the first burial site of its type that we’ve found and it reveals that Britain was always part of a bigger landscape that includes most of Europe,” Mike Pitts told the Daily Mail newspaper in 2013.
In another startling development, archeologists discovered that some of these migrants had traveled to the Isle of Thanet when they were just children. In fact, some began the journey at the tender age of three, while others would have been as old as 12. But what could have inspired these people to journey so far, and why did they meet such a gruesome end?
For many years, the truth about what happened at Cliffs End Farm remained a mystery. Then, in January 2020, a documentary aired on Channel 4, a British television network. Entitled Bone Detectives: Britain’s Buried Secrets, the program was the first in an eight-part series exploring archeology in the British Isles.
Unusually for a history documentary, the series features a presenting team made up of three women. And as well as Raksha Dave, an archeologist, the line-up also boasts Carla Valentine and Tori Herridge: a mortuary technician and a paleontologist respectively. For their first foray into Britain’s forgotten past, they focused on the excavations at Cliffs End Farm.
Specifically, the documentary focused on one particular grouping of skeletons found at the site. Speaking to Herridge, Dr. Jackie McKinley, an osteoarcheologist with Wessex Archaeology, explained, “The really interesting ones were the six in situ ones that were associated with the pit, five of which were in the base.”
According to researchers, this group of five skeletons consisted of an older woman, two juveniles and two additional individuals. And while they were not able to determine the gender of the children at first, they eventually established that both were female. In fact, the entire group was made up of women.
Of particular interest, it seems, was the skeleton belonging to the mature woman. And while experts had previously placed her age at about 55, they revealed in the documentary that she may have been far older. In fact, according to Herridge, she was the eldest of all the individuals discovered at Cliffs End Farm.
“This is the eldest of the individuals that we had, she was the primary deposit, the first to be deposited at the base of this pit and buried there,” Herridge explained. “She was certainly over 55 years of age, it’s quite difficult to age people when they get to that kind of age because you are going on degenerative processes.”
Given the condition of her bones, however, it seems likely that this individual was very old indeed. And considering the average life expectancy of a person living in the Bronze Age, this in itself would have been quite a remarkable feat. But what happened to this woman at Cliffs End Farm, and how did she end up buried in a pit alongside four other unfortunate souls?
According to Herridge, the woman is unlikely to have died a natural death. “Usually we can’t tell what people die of, there aren’t many acute diseases that affect the bone, but in this instance, I know exactly how she died.” Apparently, the 3,000-year-old skull reveals the horrible truth: this individual was slaughtered with a sword.
Afterwards, the woman’s body had been deliberately arranged in a tableau that remains quite baffling to this day. With her left hand, she held a piece of chalk close to her face, as if she were about to smell it or even put it in her mouth. Meanwhile, her right hand pointed in a southwesterly direction.
Bearing in mind the intentional arrangement of the woman – and the four others buried alongside her – experts have concluded that the mass slaughter was intended as a sacrifice. In fact, it’s believed that the older woman was intentionally selected as an offering due to her prominent place in the community.
“For somebody to live that long, at this time, she really would have been seen as, I suspect, a wise old woman,” McKinley explained in the documentary. Moreover, the fact that she was buried alongside two female juveniles further suggests that the group were part of some intentional ritual. But what might its purpose have been?
“She’s got those youngsters with her, so we’ve got this combination of old, new, young,” McKinley continued. Furthermore, the remains were accompanied by an animal sacrifice which may provide a further clue. “You’ve also got those newborn lambs lying on her lap, which seem to be representing the beginning of life,” Herridge explained.
When presented with all the facts surrounding this mysterious burial, Herridge had one question: was this a fertility ritual? According to McKinley, it may well have been. “We are talking about fertility here,” she agreed. “Because the newborn lambs, they would grow up, help produce the food that’s going to feed the community.”
“You’ve got young girls here, who are going to be the next set of mothers for that community,” McKinley continued. “That’s how the community continues, this is why women and children are so important within the community.” But if these people were so valuable to their society, why were they offered up as a sacrifice?
According to Herridge, it was precisely their importance within the community that made these people the perfect sacrifice. “These are valuable resources,” she explained. It’s not just the fact that you are killing off maybe an elderly or sick individual, you’re killing off a valuable member of the community because of the knowledge they hold. And you’re also killing off hope for the future.”
In the documentary, McKinley theorized that the woman may have been chosen as some kind of ambassador for her community. “What they’ve done here is… we need somebody to act on our behalf, with the ancestors, with the gods,” she explained. However, she admitted that it was unclear whether or not the young girls had also been intentionally sacrificed.
To help explain why such a sacrifice might have been necessary, the documentary outlined the historical situation at the time. “By this stage of the Bronze Age the seaways have become centrally important to trade and communication,” said Dr. Stuart Needham, an honorary research fellow at Wales’s National Museum. “We’ve got established networks in seaways all around Europe.”
“What they seem to have done in the sacrificial pit is almost compose a group of people who somehow represent this network,” the expert continued. “This is a constructed group for a particular purpose.” And while Herridge struggled to get her head around the notion of human sacrifice, he pointed out that it may have been a necessary evil.
In fact, some believe that the sacrifice at Cliffs End Farm may have been a direct response to some major crisis. “We’re talking about the early 9th century B.C.,” Needham explained. “A few decades later the whole Bronze Age system across a large part of Europe just collapses. And we don’t really understand why it collapses. The Cliff Sands sacrificial event is a little too early to relate directly to that, but you have to wonder… maybe that system was coming under strain for some reason.”
Was this woman – and possibly her young companions – slaughtered to help her community face an oncoming crisis? In the documentary, Valentine sums up the macabre burial. “She’s pointing to her ancestors,” she explained. “She’s imploring them, really, for help to make things right.” And in order to do that, Herridge chimes in, she had to make “the ultimate sacrifice.”