Ancient Greece: "Shocking" Dismembered Human Skull Reveals Long-Debated Ritual Sacrifice of Virgins

In ancient times, the inhabitants of the Greek island of Crete practiced human sacrifice to appease gods whom they believed threatened them with earthquakes. In a December 20 lecture at the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki, archaeologist and lead excavator Maria Vlazaki-Andreadaki addressed the evidence of ritual sacrifice that occured at the ancient palace of Kydonia, located on a hilltop on Crete.

Vlazaki-Andreadaki explained that a "great disaster"—which per calculations from the Technical University of Crete corresponds to an earthquake around 6.5 to 7.5 on the Richter scale—prompted the ancient Kydonians to perform human sacrifice to appease the deities they thought were responsible, according to Archaeology News Network. In addition to various animal skulls, Vlazaki-Andreadaki and her colleagues discovered the skull of a young girl that had been "cut up" by a sword in an incredibly precise manner.

"It is a shocking image," she told the audience, according to Archaeology News Network.

The skull of a young girl sacrificed at Kydonia. Maria Andreadaki-Vlazaki via ANA-MPA

Vlazaki-Andreadaki and her colleagues constructed the following timeline of events, according to Archaeology News Network: First, an earthquake struck, on the heels of which came a massive fire. To appease the demons and "chthonic powers"—deities from the underworld—43 sheep and goats, four pigs, one ox and one human female were sacrificed in the palace. Then came the earthquake's aftershock, which destroyed everything that hadn't been annihilated by the initial quake, though at least there was no second fire.

"This last seismic episode led to total destruction, sealing the entire ruined building and thus keeping this moment frozen in time until now, when we have inevitably disturbed it," Vlazaki-Andreadaki told the audience, according to Archaeology News Network.

Decades ago, an archaeologist had proposed evidence of child sacrifice and cannibalism, according to The New York Times. Since then, according to Archaeology News Network, the concept of such human sacrifice has been controversial among archaeologists, with many not wanting to appear to insult the ancient Greeks with similar claims. But the evidence at Kydonia indicates that the victims' remains were dismembered and the pieces covered with stones—apparently so that no one would try to eat them.

"We cannot avoid mentioning human sacrifice in Minoan Crete," Vlazaki-Andreadaki, who also serves as the Secretary General of the Ministry of Culture and Sports, said according to Archaeology News Network. "Finding the bones of the young woman, studying them, reassembling them on the skull, and observing their being split with a sharp instrument at their 'seams' in conjunction with ritual acts, should not be surprising."

Various artifacts recovered from the site of a human sacrifice in Kydonia. Maria Andreadaki-Vlazaki via ANA-MPA

The reason it shouldn't be surprising is that Greek mythology is rife with stories of human sacrifice, especially of young virgins. Periods of famine and natural disaster, as well as just before the onset of war, were the times in which ancient Greeks most typically turned to such practices, Archaeology News Network reported Andreadaki-Vlazaki as saying. These accounts tend to portray such victims meeting their fate willingly, if not particularly happily, and feeling a sense of duty.

In the lead-up to the Trojan War, King Agamemnon unwittingly angered the goddess Artemis by killing one of her sacred deer, upon which she essentially held the winds hostage—putting his fleet dead in the water—until he sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia. In the setup of the tale of Theseus and the Minotaur, King Minos of Crete forced Athenians to compensate for the death of his son by sending seven young men and seven young women into his labyrinth, where the Minotaur would eat them. Those chosen were generally described as beautiful and virginal, according to Ancient History Encyclopedia.

"The myths of virgins in the role of scapegoat, perhaps dating back to Mycenaean times, are presented as acts of deep submission and devotion to the divine," Vlazaki-Andreadaki said according to Archaeology News Network. "As acts of awe and purification, as a kind of negotiation with the supreme powers and not as savage and unscrupulous slaughter."