Recent evidence that Druids possibly committed cannibalism and ritual human sacrifice—perhaps on a massive scale—add weight to ancient Roman accounts of Druidic savagery, archaeologists say.
After a first century B.C. visit to Britain, the Romans came back with horrific stories about these high-ranking priests of the Celts, who had spread throughout much of Europe over a roughly 2,000-year period.
Julius Caesar, who led the first Roman landing in 55 B.C., said the native Celts "believe that the gods delight in the slaughter of prisoners and criminals, and when the supply of captives runs short, they sacrifice even the innocent."
First-century historian Pliny the Elder went further, suggesting the Celts practiced ritual cannibalism, eating their enemies' flesh as a source of spiritual and physical strength.
But with only the Romans' word to go on—the ancient Celts left no written record of their own—it's been easy for historians to dismiss such tales as wartime propaganda.
Until now, that is.
Gruesome Druid Discoveries
Recent gruesome finds appear to confirm the Romans' accounts, according to Secrets of the Druids, a new documentary airing Saturday on the U.S. National Geographic Channel.
Perhaps the most incriminating evidence is the 2,000-year-old, bog-mummified body of Lindow Man, discovered in England in the 1980s. Lindow Man's manicured fingernails and finely trimmed hair and beard suggest that he may have been of high status—possibly even a Druid himself.
At least one thing appears nearly certain about the ancient twentysomething: He was the victim of a carefully staged sacrifice.
Recent studies have revealed that Lindow Man's head had been violently smashed and his neck had been strangled and slashed.
Druid Fountain of Blood
"You've got a rope tightened round his neck, and at the moment where the neck was constricted, the throat was cut, which would cause an enormous fountain of blood to rise up," said archaeologist Miranda Aldhouse-Green, an archaeologist at Cardiff University in Wales and an expert on the Druids.
Another clue lay inside the body's well-preserved gut: pollen grains from mistletoe, a plant that was sacred to the Druids. (Romans wrote that Druids cut mistletoe from trees with golden sickles.)
Lindow Man's death is dated to around A.D. 60, when the Romans launched a new offensive in the island of Great Britain, currently part of the United Kingdom.
He may have been sacrificed to persuade the Celtic gods to halt the Roman advance, Aldhouse-Green said.
"Something had to be done to stop them in their tracks," she said in the documentary. "And what better way than sacrificing a high-status nobleman?"
The idea jibes with something Julius Caesar wrote: In times of danger, the Celts believed that "unless the life of a man be offered, the mind of immortal gods will not favor them."