Cattle

Herds of cattle were a measure of wealth and a symbol of prosperity in Celtic society, and were crucial to the Celtic economy for food, draught, milk and leather. Like pigs, cattle played an important role in pits, graves and sanctuaries, as food-offerings, as a component in the ritual feast, or as uneaten offerings to the gods. Indeed, long before the Celtic period in Britain, as early as the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, the occurrence of cattle as deposits in major symbolic monuments suggests that they were of great

importance in prehistoric ritual.

One of the most important cult sites, in terms of its cattle ritual, was the sanctuary of Gournay-sur-Aronde, where a number of elderly cattle - mainly male and with a high proportion of bulls - were sacrificed. Age and masculinity seem to have been important. The animals present are not representative of a normal population. They were mostly more than 7 years old when sacrificed and thirteen were veterans of more than 12 years. The cattle had not been specially bred for sacrifice but had been used as draught animals first of all. The beasts were probably led into the sanctified area and were despatched in front of a series of sacred pits: of these nine were grouped in sets of three and surrounded a larger oval pit. Each animal was led to the pit and then killed according to a precise ritual formula, in which a sharp blow was given by an axe to the nape of the neck, causing instant death. Since the head would need to be lowered in order to deliver such a blow, the animal had probably been offered food and was eating at the time of its death. There may have been an element of the animal's somehow seeming to consent to its death, by its acceptance of food. This form of killing was the result of particular choice: the more normal method of slaughter would be by cutting the animal's throat. The carcase of the ox or bull was then dragged into the great central grave-pit and allowed to decompose for about six months. In the surrounding pits, weapons were temporarily interred. Once the corpse was sufficiently rotted for the joints to be parted, the carcase was pulled out of the pit and the empty hole cleaned: tiny tell-tale bones have been found, attesting to the former presence of the cattle in this grave-pit. The main part of each animal (especially the head, neck, shoulders, spine and pelvis) remained within the sanctuary, while the rest of the body was taken away, perhaps for some other ritual purpose. What happened next to the carcases within the sanctuary formed a complicated and fascinating series of religious acts. The skulls were separated from the rest of the bodies: at some time after death the lower jaws were removed and the heads given a sword-thrust to slice off the muzzle. These skulls were re-exposed and stored, whilst the pelvis, neck, shoulder and spine of the cattle were carefully deposited in ordered heaps on either side of the sanctuary entrance. Successive acts each consisted of the placement of the bones of about ten animals. This behaviour was repeated at regular intervals of about ten years. The skulls were added after each deposition and were placed between each main layer. About 3,000 bones flanked the entrance, and there was sometimes synchronization of deposition, pairs of animals placed one on each side. In addition, more than 2,000 weapons from the nine interior pits were placed in the ditches with the bones, suggested as being consistent with the repeated dismantling of trophies which were previously

displayed on the palisade or portico.

Figure 5.13 First-century BC/first-century AD iron firedog, with terminals in the form of bulls' or horses' heads, Capel Garmon, Gwynedd. By courtesy of the National Museum of Wales.

Brunaux interprets the treatment of the cattle at Gournay as being associated with a chthonic ritual, in which the animals rotted and 'fed' the earth into which the decomposing flesh and blood soaked. The ten central pits were dug in the mid-third century BC, but in the late third or early second century the nine grouped pits served as foundations for the first temple, a building whose primary purpose was to protect the great oval decomposition-pit in which the animals rotted. This decomposition process may have been the most important of the rituals which took place at Gournay. The cattle may have been especially selected, perhaps because of appearance, temperament or even longevity. Their age and their use as working animals could mean that they were spoils of war, a factor which would have contributed greatly to their cult status. The piling up of cattle and weapons beside the sanctuary entrance was a religious act designed to guard the most vulnerable part of the temple boundary, where sacred and profane space was not physically delimited.

Other Gaulish and British sanctuaries show evidence of ritual involving cattle: at Digeon (Somme) oxen formed important offerings: and at Mirebeau (Cote d'Or), young cattle (between 2 and 4 years old) were killed and eaten in cult banquets. Interestingly, the selection of parts of animals for burial at Gournay - namely heads, spines, pelvises - contrasts with that at Ribemont (Somme), where cattle are

represented above all by their ribcages. In Britain, several shrines show signs of cattle sacrifice and ritual: outside a rectangular shrine at South Cadbury Castle, an adult cow was buried; another small sanctuary at the site was associated with six pits containing horse and cattle skulls. A third sacred building was approached by an avenue of pit-burials of young animals, including calves.126 An Iron Age structure at Uley (Glos.), a possible precursor of the later Roman

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shrine, is associated with the deposit of iron spears and the articulated limb of a cow. Ox or cow burials were present at a number of Romano-British sanctuaries, notably at Brigstock (Northants), Caerwent (Gwent), Muntham Court (Sussex) and Verulamium (Herts.). A complete bull was interred

along with other beasts at the subterranean Cambridge shrine.

Celtic graves have yielded evidence of cattle, either as food for the dead, offerings to the gods or meat for the funeral feast, though they were not as popular as either pig or sheep. We have to be careful in making such assumptions from the faunal evidence, however, since a cow or ox will, of course, yield much greater supplies of meat than either a pig or a sheep. Young animals accompanied burials in the early La Tene cemetery of Acy-Romance (Ardennes). Young cattle were again present at Mont Troté

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and Rouliers in the same region. Sometimes entire animals were sacrificed when a person died: this happened, for instance at Soissons, a cart-burial accompanied by a cortège of animals including bulls;

and another vehicle-burial at Châlon-sur-Marne included oxen. By contrast, a single bone might be symbolically placed in a tomb as a token of a whole carcase, as at Rouliers. In the cemeteries of Champagne, cattle were more popular in the earlier Iron Age than in later periods. Here, a deliberate

selection of portions was made, favouring the meaty limbs, thighs and shoulders.

British burials, too, included cattle as grave-goods: the animal remains at the early Romano-British cemetery of Skeleton Green included cattle, the males seemingly deliberately chosen to accompany male

humans. In Dorset, late Iron Age bodies were buried with a joint of beef by the head, presumably as a

food-offering for the dead or the gods of the underworld.

Ritual pits, too, bear evidence of cattle-sacrifice and interment and here it was upon the skulls that the ritual appears to have been focused. Cattle are one of the main species represented in the corn-storage pits of southern England.134 They appear at Danebury, particularly in the earlier phases, pre-400 BC.— Ritual pit-deposits of cattle occur widely in Celtic Europe: thus they were the species particularly favoured in the pits of the sacred site at Bliesbruck, where they are present usually as articulated bones,

especially the vertebrae.136 The mid- to late first-century BC cult site of Liptovska Mara in eastern

Europe was centred on a large pit containing burnt animals, including cattle.

It is clear that since cattle were so crucial to the rural Celtic economy - not simply for meat but for so many other products and for draught - they formed a significant component in sacrifice, gifts to the supernatural powers of commodities of great value to a community. We can have little perception of the precise rituals involved or of the belief-systems sur rounding them. Classical writers are very silent on details of animal sacrifice, but we do have Pliny's

comment on Druidical sacrifice of two white bulls, on the occasion of the sacred rite of mistletoe-cutting, where the parasitic growth was severed from the holy oak with a 'golden' sickle and caught in a white cloak. The colours required for both animals and cloak may have been associated with the milky appearance of the mistletoe berries. Mistletoe, with its winter growth on an apparently dead host and the resemblance of its fruit to drops of milk, was a powerful symbolic promoter of fertility when prepared as a drink within a religious context. It may well be that the two bulls were sacrificed, like those at Gournay, to the chthonic gods, to replenish the fecundity of the earth.

Figure 5.14 Bronze brooch in the form of a ram, fifth century BC, Aignay-le-Duc, Cote d'Or, France. Length: 3.7cm. Paul Jenkins.

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