Human and animal depositions – Sacrificial cult in Stillfried?


Aim of the project are (re-)evaluation and interpretation of the extraordinary findings of animal and human depositions in the fortified hilltop settlement at Stillfried (late Urnfield period) using modern scientific methods.

Stillfried an der March is an important archaeological site located on a ridge at the intersection of the Amber Road and the Morava River – a major link to the Carpathians in prehistoric and early historic times. During the late Urnfield period, a powerful hillfort developed, which was inhabited repeatedly until the High Middle Ages. Research conducted by Prof. Dr. Felgenhauer centred on the highest area of the ramparts, the so-called ‘Hügelfeld’, and the adjoining western section of the fortification.

The most common features of the excavated Urnfield settlement are trapezoidal storage pits, shaped like an inverted funnel in profile, 2–3 m deep and circular in diameter. About one in four was filled with exceptional content, which is the focus of this research project: animal bodies or partial bodies on flat surfaces and two mass depositions of human bodies, which, at the time of deposition, were still articulated.

Stillfried, Pit V949 (“Hügelfeld”): Deposition of part of a red deer. The antlers sprout ends were sawn off and not included in the deposition. Late Urnfield Period (c. 800 BC) (© Stillfried-Archiv, Land NÖ)
Fig. 2: Stillfried, Pit V1141 (“Kirchhügel”): deposition of seven individuals (one man, two women and four children). Late Urnfield Period (c. 850 BC) (© Stillfried-Archiv, Land NÖ)

Numerous parallels to the human depositions from Stillfried are known from the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. They are particularly common in the settlements of the Knovíz Culture in central and north-western Bohemia during Ha A2 (c. 1100–1000 BC), dating about 200 years earlier than the Stillfried findings (c. 950–800/750 BC). There is no question that there was an additional method of treating the dead aside from cremation and urn burials in cemeteries. The large number of these interments, and the fact that many of the deposited animals were very old wild animals that had been kept in captivity for a long time, is extraordinary and quite sensational.

Stillfried can be interpreted as an economic and religious centre of a larger settlement area. Society must have been tightly organised; the construction of a rampart of this magnitude (western ditch 8 m deep, 24 m wide) is otherwise inconceivable. Following the terminology of anthropology, one can speak of a chiefdom within a tribal society. This is characterised by a high degree of violence, innovation and instability, as can be substantiated by the Stillfried findings. The exceptional findings highlighted by this project bear witness to ritual acts that took place at the highest elevation of the settlement and were therefore public. It is easy to imagine that they were used as an effective tool to legitimise the power of the ruling class.