Horses

In the sixth century BC, a cave at Byciskala, at the eastern edge of Celtic Europe, in Czechoslovakia, was the focus of an elaborate ritual which involved the interment of forty women, possibly the result of human sacrifice, and the ritual killing of two horses which had been quartered, together with other offerings of humans, animals and grain. In a cauldron was a human skull, and another skull had been

fashioned into a drinking-cup.

Two Gaulish sanctuaries, Gournay-sur-Aronde (Oise) and Ribemontsur-Ancre (Somme), display very distinctive rituals associated with horses, whose bones were used for religious purposes. At Gournay,

seven mature horses were buried in the surrounding ditch. The skeletons had been exposed and allowed to decompose sufficiently for manipulation of the bones to be possible; then the remains were regrouped in discrete anatomical collections and buried in isolated parts of the ditch. The fact that the horses were deposited in association with numerous weapons (many of which had been ritually bent or broken) may reflect a rite related to war (see chapter 4). We may recall the vow of the Cimbri at the Battle of Orange in 105 BC to dedicate all the spoil, sacrificed enemies, horses and weapons to the gods.89 The evidence of very curious ritual behaviour can be seen at Ribemont, where a kind of bone-house was constructed: this consisted of a structure built from human limbs and those of horses, which had been carefully selected so as to be the correct length for symmetry and stability. The horses had been allowed to decompose to liberate the long-bones. There were more than 2000 human long-bones in this 'ossuary', placed crisscross, to form a square, open on one side, and with a central post. The whole construction was encircled by weapons and shield-bosses. The horse bones came from about thirty adult animals, mostly over 4 years old. There were no signs that butchery had taken place. Indeed, the humans and horses who formed the construction seem to have been treated without differentiation.90 But in some sanctuaries, horses were apparently eaten in ritual feasts, as indeed were dogs, as we have seen.

Ritual Deposit

Figure 5.11 Horse skull placed as a ritual deposit in a disused Iron Age grain-storage pit, Danebury, Hampshire. By courtesy of the Danebury Trust.

Ritual in holy places associated with sacrificed or dedicated horses manifests itself all over the Celtic world: in the late Iron Age oppidum of Liptovska Mara (Czechoslovakia) a cult area was centred round a large pit containing the remains of burnt animals including horses and dogs.91 At the other side of the Celtic world, one of the 'shrines' at the great hillfort of South Cadbury (Som.) was associated with pits

containing horse and cattle skulls which had been carefully buried the right way up. In Romano-Celtic Britain, horses were buried under the threshold of a third-century AD basilical shrine, at Bourton Grounds (Bucks.), perhaps as foundation-offerings.

Horses played a part in sepulchral ritual: two Iron Age vehicle-burials at Soissons (figure 5.8) were accompanied by horses, bulls, goats, sheep, pigs and dogs, all interred complete. In Britain, the corpse in the chariot-burial at the King's Barrow in north-east England was interred not only with his dismantled chariot but his horse team as well,94 although the animals were generally represented symbolically by bridle-bits or other harness. If the dead had been warriors, then the deliberate loss of valuable war-horses must reflect the very high status of their owners. But sometimes a single bone of a horse was placed in a grave as a symbolic, token presence: thus one horse tooth was included in the assemblage at Rouliers in the Ardennes, and at Epiais-Rhus;95 and similarly at Tartigny, we have seen that a mandible alone represented an 8-year-old horse.96 The two Ardennes cemeteries of Mont Troté

and Rouliers each contained horses; these were young animals which had just achieved maturity, in contrast to the much older animal represented at Tartigny.

Ritual pits, especially in Britain, demonstrate the importance of horses in sacrificial ritual, though

there are Continental parallels, as in the pits at Saintes which contained the complete bodies of horses. In the British pits, as is the case with dogs, particular attention was paid to the head (figure 5.11): skulls of horses were found ritually placed in pits at Newstead in southern Scotland.99 The horses buried in the storage pits of southern England show no evidence that they were butchered, although horses were eaten on settlement sites. It is important to recognize that horses are overrepresented as 'special deposits' in storage pits, compared to the general animal populations on the sites containing these pits. Horses were buried either alone as entire carcases, as partial skeletons, or as part of multiple animal deposits. A horse was interred in a pit at Tollard Royal (Wilts.);100 and a horse, a dog and man together at Blewburton.— Dogs and horses appear together at Danebury again and again, an occurrence which must reflect a specific cult-practice, perhaps associated with hunting. The skulls of horses at Danebury, which form the main evidence for horses here, were often deliberately placed at the very edge of the pit bottom, under the overhang of the lip, which is the same position as human bodies and skulls occupy. Horse-gear

is also present as pit-offerings, perhaps symbolically representative of the horse itself.

The horse ritual at Danebury is varied and interesting: in one pit, where a horse and a dog were interred together, one front and one hind leg of the horse were removed from their proper positions and the head of the horse was placed behind the torso, next to the dog. In another Danebury pit, the articulated head, neck and chest of a horse were placed in the hole after it had been partially filled with rubbish. The pelvis and sacrum were carefully and deliberately positioned over the vertebrae; the rest of the skeleton is missing. Two large nodules of flint were carefully placed inside the chest cavity, and Annie Grant suggests that the horse may have been cut open and eviscerated before its interment. The complete carcase of a young pig was placed against the horse, and a second one on the other side of the pit. In the same layer within the pit were burnt flints, chalk blocks, slingstones, sherds of pottery and a broken whetstone, which had been placed against the jaw of the horse.104 This must reflect a complex ritual which we can have no means of reconstructing from the evidence at our disposal. All that can be said is that the horse seems to have been the centre of the cult practice represented by this particular pit.

Grant105 argues that it could have been because horses did not contribute greatly to the economic base of such sites as Danebury that they were deliberately chosen for sacrificial ritual. Horses are expensive to feed and their most important quality is their speed, though they could be used as light draught animals. They were not a major food source. Her contention, therefore, is that surplus horses were available for sacrifice and that this may be why horses, like dogs, are overrepresented in cult contexts. But there are some problems with this argument. Elsewhere, Grant suggests that horses were not actually bred at Danebury but were probably rounded up from feral herds when required. If this were so, then there would be less likelihood of there being surplus animals around because only the ones that were needed would have had to be kept and fed as domestic beasts. The other problem is a religious one. If the whole idea of sacrifice is that it does represent a genuine secular loss to a community, is it not unduly cynical to introduce an argument based upon expediency as an answer to the problem of overrepresentation of horses in pits?

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