Undergraduate Essay Award | Anthropology | SIU

Southern Illinois University



College of Liberal Arts

student and instructor examining skull

Undergraduate Essay Award

Each year, an award and cash prize are given to an undergraduate for the best research essay submitted to a departmental competition, generally early in Spring semester. Preference is given to students who are Anthropology majors.

2021 Winner: Chelsi Green

Exploring the Interactions of European Iron Age People with Places of Liminality

Throughout much of Northern Europe, a wide variety of depositions have been uncovered in wetland environments. These depositions range from weapons to animals remains to food stuffs and from ornaments and various metallurgic objects to wooden anthropomorphic figures to human remains. This practice of wetland depositions raises some questions. The number of wetland depositions sites would seem to indicate that these locations held some significance to the peoples who performed the depositions. Yet what is it about these locations that made them significant to these people? Furthermore, why were these particular objects chosen to be included in wetland deposits? Ultimately, through the combined examination of the locations of wetland depositions and the deposited object, this paper seeks to answer the question, what can be suggested about the worldview and early religious practice of wetland deposition of the Late Bronze and Early Iron Age peoples in Northern Europe?

Tollund Man remainsIn the case of bogs, the environment is neither entirely solid land nor exclusively water, it is somewhere in between and as such bogs are particularly appropriate to represent liminal places, those places in the human imagination in which the boundaries between the human world and a world of imaginary powers become indistinct. In other cases, watery environments act as very real borders within the human world, demarcating areas such as ancient tribal boundaries. In short, it would appear that these wetland environments may have been viewed as places of liminality, possibly as locations in which humans could interact with imaginary powers and offer up objects, animals, and people to the deities in order to secure a reciprocal exchange.

Regardless of whether these environments marked boundaries within the human realm or between the realm of humans and a realm of deities, the treatment of certain locations is markedly different, that is to say, not all bogs, rivers, and lakes are treated equally (in the prehistoric mind). So, we must ask then, what sets these wetland environments apart? Is there any indication that these areas are in any way set apart or marked as “other”? And if so, how? What does it say about those areas that have been marked as “other” versus those that have not been marked? Does this provide any clues as to why some of these locations were selected as places for deposition?

Wandsworth shieldIf we determine that these locations are places of significance, what then does this say about the objects, animals and individuals that were deposited in these places? What can be interpreted from the contexts in which these dispositions were uncovered? What sort of religious or social significance do they hold? In some cases, the animal and human remains may be interpreted as sacrifices. There is some evidence to suggest that metallurgic objects were similarly considered to be sacrifices. In some cases, weapons and metal objects were deposited whole and unbroken, in other cases weapons and metal objects were broken or damaged in some way, and in still other cases only scraps of objects were deposited. Does the state in which the metallurgic object was deposited change the intent of the deposition? That is to say, for example, does the deposition of a whole, unbroken sword hold a different meaning than the deposition of a broken sword or only part of a sword? Additionally, there is some evidence to suggest that metal smiths were afforded a significant position in Bronze and Iron Age societies, which may change the interpretation of deposited weapons and metal objects.

In different regions throughout Bronze and Iron Age Northern Europe (specifically the regions that are modern day Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands, Great Britain and Ireland) objects, animals, and human remains were deposited in watery environments. It cannot be said with any sort of certainty that a single overarching purpose accounts for all of these depositions within watery contexts. In some cases, deposits were made in order to thank the gods for victory in battle, while in other cases deposits were part of sovereignty rituals. What does appear repeatedly is that the places in which these depositions took place were likely viewed as borders, not only in the real world, where territory claims could be made/maintained by deposits made at such locations, but also between the real world and the world of the gods. In these locations water acted as a liminal space allowing for contact to be made beyond the real world that early Northern European peoples inhabited.