Human Sacrifice

Archaeological Perspectives from around the World

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Laerke Recht
Elements in Religion and Violence
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , December
     2018.
     75 pages.
     $19.99.
     E-Book.
    ISBN
    9781108625456.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Human Sacrifice by Laerke Recht is part of the Religion and Violence series edited by James R. Lewis and Margo Kitts, which responds to the increased interest in the topic since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Human Sacrifice looks at examples of the many types of ritual killing of human beings from the Ancient Near East, Egypt, China, northern Europe, and Mesoamerica. The book focuses on archaeological remains supported by iconographic and textual evidence where available, and aims to show that human sacrifice is not only an expression of religious belief, but can also be used manipulatively through performative action in the service of ruler ideology.   

Recht provides a useful introduction to the topic of human sacrifice through five chapters which focus on carefully selected case studies and the useful appendix points the way to further research. In the introduction, Recht defines human sacrifice as “a religious ritual where a living being is deliberately killed in the process for the purposes of the event and usually in honour of a supernatural entity” (3). But she explains that the category is actually an artificial, modern construct because, while from our vantage point the archaeological evidence can be classified as “human sacrifice,” from the ancient actor’s point of view the conceptual apparatus behind the activity may have differed in different ancient societies. Recht then explains the archaeological identifiers of human sacrifice: signs of a violent cause of death and signs of a sacred/religious context are useful but also problematic considering the reasonably contested nature of the diagnostic parameters of “cult” within the archaeological record.

Each chapter provides case studies, presenting the archaeological evidence for human sacrifice within a particular region in chronological order, followed by a discussion about the evidence. Beginning with the Near East, the second chapter frames a study of the retainer sacrifice at the Royal Tombs at Ur with cases of foundation sacrifice at Nuzi, Tepe Gawra, and Tell Abou Danné, Tell Umm el-Marra, Jericho, Tell Brak, and Amman. The content is informative and interesting and certainly provides sufficient introductory information on the Royal Tombs at Ur. This is followed by a chapter on First Dynasty Egyptian retainer sacrifice at Abydos.

Next, the chapter on China looks at human sacrifice in the Shang culture through both archaeological remains in burials and construction deposits, and the Oracle Bone Inscriptions. The book then turns to examine the peat bog bodies of northern Europe, preserved through a combination of the anaerobic nature and chemical composition of the bog. Mesoamerica (here mainly the Olmecs, Maya, and Aztecs) is the final region covered. Because of the archaeological remains, iconography, advancements in the decipherment of Mayan glyphs, and extensive colonial records, more is known about human sacrifice in Mesoamerica than other regions of the world. The chapter looks at construction sacrifice, skull racks and ball games, removal of the heart, and retainer and mortuary sacrifice.

While each chapter is interesting and informative, I was most intrigued by those on the Ancient Near East, the bog bodies, and Mesoamerica; I felt that the chapters on Egypt and China were drier. The conclusion of the book is thought-provoking, focusing as it does on the similarity of human sacrifice to animal sacrifice; trends evident in the examples of sacrifice covered in the preceding chapters, such as the predominance of men of fighting age as victims; sacrifice as a type of ideological theatre with specific human audiences; and the liminal and hidden aspects of sacrifice when sacrificed remains are placed in threshold locations or arranged for the benefit of other-than-human audiences. The appendix is a very useful guide to further study and the bibliography is quite extensive for such a small book. The forty accompanying figures, which include maps, architectural plans, tomb plans, artworks, osteological line drawings, and photographs of human bodies and architectural structures, are helpful to visualize the material being discussed.

One of the limits of this small format for such a subject is that there is no room to go into the “whys” of human sacrifice—although of course the motivations for this activity would not be uniform across the diverse regions and time periods covered. In the introduction Recht explains that human sacrifice was undertaken because of certain underlying beliefs in the effectiveness of the ritual act. It would have been interesting to have read more about these beliefs, if they are recoverable, or if not then theorizing by archaeologists on such beliefs would have been useful. Fascinating as the topic of human sacrifice is, it is also rather repugnant, although as Recht says, “the purpose of this work is not to judge whether the acts represented by the [archaeological] material are gruesome, cruel, or immoral” (1).

Nevertheless, one cannot help but feel sorry for the victims of sacrifice whether willing participants or not and wonder at the thought processes of the blood-spattered Mesoamerican priests, for example, who apparently spent a lot of their time killing humans. While we ought not to project contemporary sensibilities back onto the peoples of the past, it is difficult not to contrast the disapproval at mass killing—or at any sort of killing—today with ancient practices, and think about it in regards to more recent societies including our own. What is the difference between state-sanctioned (elite) killing (execution) and individual killing (murder)? What aspect of human nature promotes aggressive killing of other humans? What were the religions explanations for ritual killing? Of course, not all of these questions can be answered by archaeological material or even by accompanying texts, and the small size of this book and its function as an introduction to and overview of the topic means there is not room for philosophical analysis of the topic.

It is up to the reader then, to follow up the topic of human sacrifice, which should be reasonably easy if the books listed in the appendix as well as the bibliography are an indication of the amount already published on the topic.   

About the Reviewer(s): 

Caroline Tully is an Honorary Fellow in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne.

Date of Review: 
August 3, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Laerke Recht is Fellow in Archaeology Research at Cambridge University.

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