Some 300 circular pits, each around eight feet wide, mark the ground of the ancient compound of Achenheim in Alsace, northeastern France. In one of them, now known as Pit 124, archaeologists from the National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (Inrap) recently discovered the skeletons of five adults and one adolescent, along with four arms they determined belonged to four different individuals. Based on the pottery shards and arrowheads found nearby, they believe the bodies date to 4400 or 4200 B.C., during the Neolithic (late Stone Age) period.
While the Inrap scientists believe these circular “silos” were used to store grain and other food, this is not the first time that ancient bodies have been found in similar circles in France. Other archaeologists have speculated that such pits were used as graves for important individuals and their family members, or sites for sacrificial offerings to the gods.
This particular silo, however, is no ordinary grave. Philippe Lefranc, an Inrap specialist on the period, told Agence France-Presse that the victims found in the pit “were very brutally executed and received violent blows, almost certainly from a stone axe.” The skeletons showed various fractures on their skulls, legs, arms, ribs and pelvises. The researchers believe the severed arms may have been trophies of war, similar to those found at a nearby ancient site in Bergheim in 2012, but they could also be the result of torture or mutilation, possibly post-mortem.
The remains were found piled on top of each other in a manner that suggests the victims were killed all at once and thrown into the silo. In addition, the mutilated nature of the bodies further indicates the killers were most likely what Lefranc described as “furious ritualized warriors.” In addition, the archaeologists found the hundreds of silos carved within a defensive wall, which indicated that the massacre took place during a time of unrest and instability in the region.
Because all the individuals they found in the silo are male, the Inrap team believes the victims are unlikely to have been residents of the village where they were killed. In other Neolithic mass graves, archaeologists have found the remains of adult men and women as well as very young children, indicating they all had been killed during raids or attacks on their villages.
Lefranc and his fellow Inrap archaeologist, Fanny Chenal, hope genetic testing on the remains will help them determine more about the killings. According to their leading theory, members of a local tribe may have clashed with a group newly arrived from the region around present-day Paris–possibly a scouting or warrior group seeking easy targets–after which the Alsatians killed the new arrivals en masse and dumped their bodies in the silo. Other archaeological evidence found in the region suggests that the invaders would soon triumph, however, as newcomers from the Parisian basin appear to have supplanted the local tribe by around 4200 B.C.
As the Washington Post reported, the Inrap team was forced to put their work at the Achenheim site on hold a little earlier than expected, as the ancient compound is currently flooded, along with much of France, due to recent heavy rains. The archaeologists will have to wait for the floodwaters to subside in order to continue investigating this Neolithic massacre.