Pits

In Britain and in parts of Continental Europe, there is a consistent and repeated ritual activity which associates animal burials with pits, wells or shafts. Most striking is the behaviour of Iron Age communities in southern England, who used pits dug into the chalk for the storage of grain. What seems to have happened is that once a pit came to the end of its useful life and was no longer required, elaborate, pre-closure thanksgiving ceremonies took place, indicated archaeologically by the deposition of whole or parts of animals. This act of burial was a nonrational act, involving a serious economic loss, as we have seen, but it was none the less repeated in many pits and on a number of sites in southern Britain. The animals, often known as 'special deposits', were usually positioned, sometimes very carefully, at the bottom of pits before they were finally filled with rubbish and soil. Pits containing

'special deposits' are always situated in the interior of occupation sites, rather than on the periphery. Through time there is a shift in the type of site in which such pits occur: thus in later periods, the 'special deposits' of animal burials decline in open settlements but increase sharply in the hillforts —

Figure 5.6 First-century BC or early first-century AD iron firedog found in a grave at Baldock, Hertfordshire. Paul Jenkins.

The special or abnormal deposits of animals in pits fall into three main categories: they may consist of complete or partial articulated skeletons, bearing no signs of butchery for consumption, and sometimes beheaded; or they may be represented by skulls, which were not split to extract the brain, as was the normal economic practice; or they may comprise articulated limbs. In all three groups, the remains represent the loss to a community of the normal economic benefits of animals, whether for consumption, for animal products or for breeding. This loss was deliberate and presumably reflects valuable offerings to the gods.

The animals which were sacrificed in this manner were nearly always domestic species or birds. An exception occurs at Winklebury (Hants), where a deposit of twelve foxes and a red deer was laid down. There are a number of reasons for these 'special deposits' to be considered abnormal and therefore arguably the result of ritual activity: one is the absence t t

Baldock Iron Age Firedogs Baldock

of evidence for consumption, in the form of butchery; another is that the animals represented by special deposits do not accurately reflect their proportions in the general animal population: thus horses are overrepresented, sheep underrepresented, and so on. A third reason is the presence of multiple burials, where two or more complete animals were interred together. It is surely too much of a coincidence to suppose that the animals died naturally at the same time, and deliberate sacrificial slaughter is a much more persuasive explanation.

It is worth while to examine these 'special deposits' in British grain-storage pits in a little more detail. Whilst much of the current and recent research has been stimulated by the excavations at the Danebury hillfort (Hants), occurrences at other sites in southern Britain indicate that animal burials in pits were a recurrent phenomenon. Whole skeletons were present, for instance, at Ashville (Oxon.) and Maiden Castle (Dorset); skulls at Meon Hill (Hants) and Camulodunum (Essex). At Twywell (Northants) two pigs and a dog were buried together; a dog and a man at Blewburton (Oxon.). Several times at Danebury, dogs and horses were interred together, and on one occasion a cat and a sheep shared a pit.

Danebury is particularly rich in animal remains and it is this site which has provided the greatest opportunity to study the curious ritual activity reflected by special animal deposits. The pits at Danebury are narrow-mouthed, flaring out at the base.36 About one-third of the pits contain special deposits of animals (figure 5.7). It may be, however, that some of the others may once have contained organic offerings - grain, slices of meat, vegetables or liquor - which have vanished, leaving no archaeological trace. Certainly, some pits contained iron tools, which were themselves arguably offerings. The very high proportion of special animal deposits at Danebury is in part due to the exceptionally large number

of bones yielded by the site altogether. The ritual associated with pits and animals may be quite elaborate: in an early pit, dating to before the defended enclosure was erected (i.e. pre-500 BC) were two

dogs, associated with other bones, which were covered with chalk blocks. In another, later, pit were an eviscerated horse and a pig, again associated with large blocks of chalk. Several of the animal bodies at Danebury were found with stones and slingstones, used for defending the stronghold in time of war. Annie Grant has suggested that, although many deposits of domestic beasts reflect a considerable

economic loss to the community, there may none the less have been economic considerations at work. Thus, whilst sheep are the most important secular commodity at Danebury, these animals appear relatively rarely as special pit-deposits. Conversely, horses and dogs occur with relative frequency as ritual burials, even though they are of less economic importance. What Grant suggests is that it may have been precisely because these animals were less significant as food that they were singled out for use as special offerings to the gods. Indeed, where there are partial animal burials, it may be argued that only part of an animal carcase was sacrificed and the other part was consumed, thus allowing gods and humans to share the largesse.

Pits Horses Dogs Iron Age Danebury

Figure 5.7 Ritual burial of a horse and a dog in a disused Iron Age grain-storage pit, Danebury, Hampshire. By courtesy of the Danebury Trust.

To understand the placing of offerings in storage pits, it is perhaps helpful to think of corn storage itself as, in a sense, a ritual or religious act, whereby the grain was given into the safe-keeping of the chthonic or underground gods. Thus it is quite comprehensible to envisage thank-offering ceremonies taking place before a disused pit was finally closed. Such a ritual act would be at one and the same time one of gratitude, appeasement and a rite of passage at a time of change. What we seem to be witnessing is the manifestation of a magico-religious belief associated with animal husbandry, in which the gods were thanked for protecting the corn by means of fertility-offerings symbolic of the renewal of the earth. The animals which rotted in the ground, their blood and vital juices seeping into the earth, nourished the earth-gods in whose territory the pits were dug. Storage in pits was a very efficient method of keeping corn dry and vermin-free, unspoilt and ungerminated. This efficiency was acknowledged with gratitude as being of divine origin.

In addition to the discrete phenomenon of grain-storage pit ritual in central-southern England, there is evidence in Iron Age and Romano-Celtic Britain that shafts and wells were also sites of ritual activity involving animals.40 These vary through time: for instance, bird deposits are particularly important in Iron Age shafts, pigs in pits belonging to the Romano-Celtic phase. In the Iron Age, the shafts tended to be deeper, more indicative of careful, systematic ritual deposition. The votive offerings which they contained are connected with perceptions of natural and domestic fertility.41 In the Roman period, wells are particularly associated with dogs: at the Romano-British town of Caerwent, the tribal capital of the Silures, five skulls were placed in a well; numerous dogs were cast into a deep well associated with a shrine of the first century AD at Muntham Court (Sussex); and the remains of sixteen dogs, together with

a complete Samian bowl, were placed in a second-century well at Staines near London. It is very probable that dogs were linked with some chthonic or underworld ritual (see pp. 111-13). Bird remains in wells are interesting: most curious of all is the deposit of ravens or crows set between pairs of tiles at Jordan Hill, Weymouth, a dry well associated with a Romano-Celtic temple.43

Ritual pits as sacred places for animal-burial occur in Continental as well as in British contexts. The Czechoslovakian site of Libenice is a long, subrectangular enclosure dating to the third century BC. Inside was a central pit containing a standing stone and several pestholes; devotees descended into the pit at the time of feasting by a stairway, and performed animal sacrifices. Before each ceremony, the bottom of the sunken structure was carefully prepared and a layer of earth spread out. It is thus possible to count the number of sacrifices which took place on successive occasions: there were twenty-four. The sanctuary seems finally to have been destroyed by fire.44 The oppidum of Liptovska Mara was another cult site in Czechoslovakia, where the sacral activity was focused on a large pit containing burnt remains of domestic animals, associated with pottery, jewellery and carved wood. This sacred site dates to the middle to end of the first century BC.45

In Gaul, a number of sites have yielded evidence of animal ritual involving pits. In Aquitaine, deep pits of the mid-first century BC contained cremations and animal bones, including those of toads. In Saint Bernard (Vendée) one shaft contained the complete trunk of a cypress, antlers and the figurine of a goddess.46 The vicus or civil settlement at Bliesbruck (Moselle), which was occupied during the first to third centuries AD, contained hundreds of holes and pits filled with layers of 'offerings', including remains of animals, attesting to ritual behaviour. The pits were all lined with stones and their sole apparent purpose was to receive sacrificial deposits. Unlike the southern British pits discussed earlier, they had no overt primary function but seem to have been constructed as a religious act. Each pit contained several thousand bones, which fall into two groups: some were the result of ritual feasting, shown by their being thrown into ashy earth full of charcoal, along with other material. The second group of bones was deposited in a structured, ordered manner and represents the joints of meat, articulated bones, heads or complete bodies of animals offered to the presumably chthonic deities of the

An land.47 Many of the meat-offerings at Bliesbruck seem to have been the less palatable parts of the animal, particularly the spinal columns, implying once again that the choice pieces were consumed by humans in ritual feasting. By contrast, groups of sacred pits at Argentomagus (Indre) contain the best portions of meat - shoulder and leg joints.

One of the most interesting series of pits on Gaulish sites is a group found within the sacred space of Gournay (Oise). Here, Jean-Louis Brunaux excavated nine pits grouped in threes and a larger pit which was constructed to receive the carcases of sacrificed oxen, which were left there for six months or more to decompose before being placed on either side of the sanctuary entrance, in an apotropaic, guardianship ritual (figure 5.4). This kind of burial is interpreted by Brunaux as a chthonic and fertility ritual, perhaps similar to that represented by the 'special deposits' of southern England, in which an

animal was received into the earth to nourish it. Graves

In the middle of the first century BC Julius Caesar refers to a burial rite which he had heard of in Gaul but which he describes as being before his time and obsolete at the time of writing:49 he comments that it used to be the case that, when a man was buried, all his possessions, including his dependants and animals, were placed on his funeral pyre. There is occasional archaeological evidence to support this, at least in part. In the King's Barrow, an Iron Age chariot-burial in east Yorkshire, a Celt was interred with his dismantled vehicle and accompanied by the horse team itself.50 At Soissons, two cart-burials appear to have been accompanied by entire funeral cortèges, comprising the complete bodies of horses, bulls, goats, sheep, pigs and dogs (figure 5.8) — Annie Grant points to a comparative sepulchral ritual which took place in the Kerma culture of prehistoric Nubia, at around 2500 BC.52 Here animals were central to funerary ritual and entire, sacrificed animals - mainly sheep - were placed in the tombs, together with joints of mutton, thus differentiating between food for a feast or for the dead man and offerings to the gods.

Figure 5.8 The funeral cortège of animals found accompanying the Iron Age chariot-burial at Soissons, France. Paul Jenkins, after Meniel.

Generally speaking, the animal remains which occur in graves are there for one of a distinct set of reasons. First, they may reflect funerary feasting, in honour of the dead and the gods associated with death. Second, parts of animals appear in graves as food-offerings, accompanying the dead to the Otherworld, either as sustenance, to keep him going on his long journey, or perhaps as payment to the under-world powers, a kind of entrance-fee for admittance to the Otherworld. A third group of animal remains consists of ornaments where, for instance, animal teeth may be perforated to form part of a collar or necklace. The appearance of just one bone of an animal may be present to symbolize the whole animal: such may be the case with the phalange of an aurochs at Mont Troté or the talus of an ox at Rouliers. Finally, some animals, like dogs or horses, may be present in the grave to accompany their master to the afterlife.

It is frequently difficult to make a distinction between food-offerings to the dead and remains of ritual feasting. Many Iron Age chariot- or cart-burials contain one or more joints of pork which show no signs of having been eaten. In the fifth to third centuries BC, Gaulish warriors were sometimes interred in rectangular graves with cuts of meat which remains of funerary banquets, the food-offerings themselves often seem were usually positioned at either end of the tomb. In comparison with rather modest; good cuts of meat were not all that common. Other offerings to the dead, such as pottery, seem often to have been more important than actual food-offerings. Sometimes there is evidence that particular species, ages and cuts of meat were necessary to a specific rite in a certain community. Thus, cemeteries in the Ardennes, such as Mont Troté and Rouliers, contain food-offerings for the deceased which consist mainly of young animals.54 Sometimes indifferent cuts of meat, like spinal columns, might be offered together with one good portion, perhaps an upper leg. Some offerings consist of a single piece of meat, others several pieces or articulated limbs. At the cemetery of Epiais-Rhus in the Paris Basin, changes in the traditions of food-offerings may be observed through time. In the free Gaulish period, pigs were favoured, but in Gallo-Roman graves, domestic fowls were more popular. At Tartigny (Oise) there were different combinations of animals in each of the five graves,55 but the youth of animals such as pigs is a consistent factor in their choice. Sometimes the bodies of the animal offerings appear to have been treated in a curious way: at both Mont Troté and Rouliers in the Ardennes, pigs were interred with three out of four feet missing.56 The absence of feet and lower limbs in some graves suggests that animals were flayed, the extremities being removed with the skin.

The main activity associated with animal ritual in Gaulish graves seems to have been linked with

funerary feasting. There was butchery and cooking at Mont Troté and at Rouliers. Pork and lamb were offered to both the dead and the bereaved at the ritual banquet. The food refuse from many cemeteries paints a picture of perhaps ostentatious ceremonies where vast quantities of young, succulent pigs and

lambs were consumed and the bones tossed with apparent abandon into the grave. Burials of the later Iron Age in the Champagne region contain remains of both ritual meals and food-offerings: complete skeletons are rarer than single bones or articulated limbs, and wild animals are very seldom attested.59

The so-called 'symbolic' remains of animals in graves are interesting: at Tartigny, one grave contained a hare, a one-year-old dog and the mandible of a horse 8 years old. This could be interpreted as a hunter's grave (with prey and hunting-animals represented), and it is espcially interesting that the jaw alone could represent the entire horse.60 What happened to the rest we can only speculate: perhaps the animal was eaten. Likewise, the digit of an ox or the tooth of a bear might represent, symbolically, the whole beast (see chapter 3). Other symbolism may be present in the graves: the Romano-British cemetery at Skeleton Green (Herts.) was in use in the late first century to early second century AD. The burials here were cremations and they were accompanied by animal remains. Whilst the deposits could simply reflect food-offerings, there is something curious about their organization within the cemetery, in that - as we have seen - male animals were associated specifically with the burials of men and birds with women, whilst sheep accompanied both sexes.61 This kind of evidence leads us to believe that there may sometimes have been elaborate and symbolic ritual whose meaning it is difficult for a modern enquirer to comprehend.

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  • Leopoldo Castiglione
    What was non ritual life like at Danebury hillfort?
    8 years ago
  • orgulas
    How to construct a grain pit?
    8 years ago

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