Dogs In Celtic Culture

Dogs played an important part in the ritual activities of sanctuaries. The sacred site of Gournay was the scene of complex ritual involving dogs during the later Iron Age. Pieces of fifteen dogs were found, consisting especially of jaw-bones, implying that there were specific rites associated with heads or skulls. Certainly the bones present seem to have been carefully selected, and there is a marked absence of trunks, ribs and vertebrae.69 At Ribemont, pieces of dog were deposited in the ditch surrounding the sanctuary.

Dogs were eaten as food in settlements, but there is only limited evidence for their consumption in shrines. However, butchery did take place at Gournay and Ribemont, which suggests that dogs were occasionally consumed as part of the ritual feasting. At Ribemont, one dog had its skull split open to extract the brain and tongue, just like the pigs found on Iron Age habitation sites.

Dogs seem to have a particular association with sacred sites which have an aquatic connection. As early as the Bronze Age in Britain, dogs may have been sacrificed at the watery sites of Caldicot

(Gwent) and Flag Fen (Cambs.). This water association continues through time: Ivy Chimneys,

Witham (Essex), was a religious site in the Iron Age, and was associated with a sacred pond. The ditch contained skeletons of domestic animals and a row of dog teeth 'set as though in a necklace'. In the Romano-Celtic period, there is abundant evidence for the link between dogs and water: the Upchurch

Marshes (Kent) received a deposit of seven puppies, one accompanying an adult bitch, buried in urns. The skulls of five dogs were deposited in a well at Caerwent (Gwent);74 at Muntham Court (Sussex), several dogs were cast into a deep well near a circular shrine; the small Romano-British site at Staines, associated with a bridge, had a well in which sixteen dogs had been deposited, presumably as a ritual

Figure 5.10 Bronze dog from the Romano-Celtic sanctuary at Estrees Saint-Denis, France. Paul Jenkins.

The repeated association between dogs and water may suggest a chthonic aspect to dog symbolism. That these animals may have been perceived as underworld creatures is supported by other contexts in which dogs were sacrificed, namely pits and graves. The deposition of a dog in a pit (figure 5.7) is not a dissimilar practice to its placement in a deep well: the relationship with underground forces is a feature of in both contexts. Dogs were often associated with pits in Iron Age and Romano-Celtic Europe. British ritual shafts also contained dog remains, especially the skulls,76 repeating the evidence from Gournay and Caerwent. In the disused grain-storage pits of southern Britain, complete or partial bodies of dogs -with no evidence for their consumption - were interred together, sometimes with great care and within a complex context. The primary phase of occupation at Danebury, before 500 BC, when the settlement was first defended, is represented by a series of pits dug outside the line of the later defences. One of these was about 2 metres deep and in it were placed the bodies of two dogs, together with a selection of twenty other bones which represent a carefully chosen range of both wild and domestic species. After the animals had been positioned, chalk blocks were laid over the bodies and then a huge timber structure

was erected over the middle of the whole deposit. This must reflect an elaborate ritual, perhaps to do with the appeasement of the chthonic forces on whose ground the settlement was built. Multiple pit-burials sometimes include dogs accompanied by other beasts: at Twywell, two pigs and a dog were buried together. Interestingly, there is a recurrent association between dogs and horses, arguably the closest animal companions of man. At Blewburton a horse, a dog and a man were interred in the same

pit, as a synchronous ritual act. Horses and dogs occur together repeatedly enough for their association to be considered statistically significant at Danebury (figure 5.7), even though both dogs and horses were

comparatively rare in the overall faunal assemblage. The link between horses and dogs seems to have been very strong: at the sunken shrine in Cambridge (p. 110), a horse and dogs were found buried together,80 and at Ivy Chimneys, dog teeth were buried in the vicinity of the body of a horse.81 Elsewhere in Britain the implied chthonic association continues to manifest itself: thus, two dogs were interred in a wooden box, together with pottery dating to the second century AD at the Elephant and

Castle in South London. In Continental Europe, too, the link between dogs and pits is demonstrated by the entire skeletons deposited in deep shafts at such act.

locations as Saint Bernard, Bordeaux and Saintes in Aquitaine, and at Allonnes in the north of France. Dogs played a prominent role, too, in the ritual activities centred on the pits at Bliesbruck (Moselle), in which many parts of dogs were deposited.

Celtic graves bear ample evidence of dog ritual: sometimes there is an indication that the animals were food-offerings, sometimes that they were sacrificed uneaten, in different ceremonies. In general, dogs appear far more frequently in the cemeteries of the later Iron Age. A dog formed part of a rather grisly ceremony at Tartigny (Oise): he was probably sacrificed at the death of his master. The man was interred with a hare, the jaw of a horse, and a young dog whose bones bore traces of cutting: the animal had apparently been skinned, and there were marks on the bones around the stomach which are indicative of the creature's evisceration;84 whether dead or alive when he was subjected to this brutal ritual is not known. Other evidence of dogs accompanying humans to the afterlife occurs at the Iron Age cemetery of

Acy 'La Croisette', in Champagne, where three small dogs were interred with their master. But at Epiais-Rhus, dogs were food-offerings and pieces of dog, including isolated legs, represented gifts of meat for the journey of the deceased or a fee for his passage to the next world. The same cemetery produced evidence that some dogs were burnt, maybe sacrificed to the gods of death.86

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