Weird, "hybridized" animal skeletons, including a cow-horse and a six-legged sheep litter the bottom of storage pits in an Iron Age site in England, archaeologists have found. One pit even holds the bones of a woman with a slit throat laid on top of animal bones, the scientists said.
The unusual remains belong to an ancient people who lived in southern England from about 400 B.C. until just before the Roman invasion, in A.D. 43, said dig co-director Paul Cheetham, a senior lecturer in archaeology at Bournemouth University in the United Kingdom.
It appears that the people dug the pits to store food such as grain near their dwellings. They had "no decent way of refrigerating stuff" back then, and the chalky earth would have provided a cool storage area, Cheetham told Live Science.
The people would have used each pit for only a year or two before digging a new one. Just before they abandoned a pit, it appears, the people buried a hybridized animal in it, sometimes with the flesh still attached, possibly as a way to honor the gods, Cheetham and his colleagues said. (When skeletons are well connected, or articulated, it indicates that the individual had ligaments and flesh holding it together when it was buried, the researchers said.)
These "hybrids" would have been formed from the body parts of various other animals.
"[They were] creating combinations of prized animals as an offering to particular deities," said dig co-director Miles Russell, a senior lecturer of prehistoric and Roman archaeology at Bournemouth University. "What this meant precisely to the tribes we don't know, as nothing sadly was written down from the period and we have no record of the names or nature of the gods being invoked."
The archaeologists found all kinds of mix-and-matched animals in the pits. Many contained combinations of horse and cow body parts — such as a cow skull with a horse jaw and a horse skull with a cow horn sticking out, resulting in something that looked like a bizarre unicorn.
Some pits held sheep and cow combinations and the entire bodies of sacrificed dogs and pigs. In one pit, the archaeologists found a decapitated sheep's body with a cow skull on its rear.
Such animal sacrifices are not to be taken lightly, the archaeologists said. Cows, sheep and horses were likely the basis of the economy and also a food source, "so to dispose of an animal like a pig is quite a big thing to do," Cheetham said.
Archaeologists also found the skeleton of a woman buried facedown on a bed of bones. A cut mark on her collarbone suggested someone had sliced her throat, Cheetham said.
"People were not buried in the Iron Age in this part of Britain," he said. "We don't know what they did with their bodies. They either cast them into water or exposed them," leaving them out in the elements.
So, like the hybridized animals, it's likely the woman was part of a ritual or sacrifice, Cheetham said. Furthermore, her body was laid over bones from cows, horses, sheep, pigs and dogs. Curiously, her legs are on top of the animals' rear limbs, while her pelvis covers their pelvises, and so on.
"It’s like she was an addition to this hybrid human animal," Cheetham said.