Honouring Leicestershire’s Ancient Dead
In 1996 two human skulls were uncovered during excavation works at a gravel quarry north of Leicester. The skulls, along with other human remains, had been deposited in what would have originally been a waterlogged area alongside the river Soar. Although found close together, radiocarbon dating indicated that one of the skulls was Neolithic (3000 BCE, the oldest human remains to be found in the County) and the other Bronze Age (800 BCE). Analysis carried out by the University of York and the British Museum concluded that before the bodies were deposited the blood supply had been suddenly cut – possibly indicating a violent death. Three cut marks, made using a sharp instrument, were also found on the back of the spinal vertebrae that accompanied the Bronze Age skull. The cuts had not healed, indicating that they were inflicted at the time of or following death. The depth of these cuts suggested that they were probably not an attempt at decapitation but could have been the slicing of the muscle cluster at the base of the neck. It is not inconceivable that they might have occurred as a result of defleshing.
Also found within a 100m radius of the two human skulls were a burnt mound (pile of heat shattered stones associated with ritual bathing), an ancient timber bridge and a collection of butchered animal bone (including a decapitated horse skull and European Bison bones).
Various theories as to the origins of the skulls and the circumstances of their deaths have been put forward. It has been suggested that although one of the skulls was over two thousand years older than the other, they may have been deposited at or around the same time. This could indicate that the older skull had been retained in order to play a ritual role in the life of the community, and may have belonged to a mythic ancestor or hero or to a sacrificial victim.
In December 2007 the skulls became part of a temporary exhibition of local artifacts on display at Charnwood Museum in Loughborough. Prior to the exhibition the Loughborough Council of Faiths were consulted by the curator of the museum in order to ensure that any sensitivity surrounding the display of human remains would be appropriately respected. As a result Charnwood Grove of Druids requested permission to hold a ceremony with the skulls that would acknowledge their humanity and honour them as distant ancestors of the local community. An auspicious time was chosen, and the ceremony took place on the 10th February 2008. The event was facilitated by Charnwood Grove of Druids but was open to other members of the community to attend and included a call for peace made by the Mayor of Charnwood Councillor Joe Tormey. Tokens of respect, given as offerings by those present, were later taken to the river Soar and deposited in the water in an area close to where the skulls where found.
The ceremony has given members of the Charnwood Grove of Druids an opportunity to make a ritual relationship with the remains of Leicestershire’s oldest known resident. Some of those taking part in the ceremony may even be direct blood decedents of these two ancient ancestors. Many of those present felt that a palpable energy permeated the ceremony and an atmosphere of respectful peace prevailed throughout. The inclusion of the Mayor in the proceedings created a civic link between past and present and the active support of museum staff ensured that the event ran smoothly.
According to Geoffrey of Monmouth the City of Leicester was named after a legendary 8th Century King called Lear, who was the inspiration for the Shakespeare play of the same name. Monmouth states that King Lear was buried in a tomb beneath the River Soar. Some have speculated that King Lear was himself a mythic character derived from the Celtic sea God Llyr or Lir. The section of the River Soar where the two skulls and other remains were found now forms part of a large nature reserve called Watermead Country Park. The lake where the offerings made during the ritual were deposited is called King Lear’s Lake (http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/377515). Interestingly there is a story that links the God Lyre with a severed head. The head of Lyre’s son Bendigeid Vran was said to have been buried in London with its face towards the English Channel, watching over the Islands of Britain. This could refer to the ancient custom of burying heads and other human remains on tribal boundaries, borders and other important sites to act as guardians. Perhaps this was the role envisaged for the two Leicestershire bog bodies.