Sanctuaries

Animals were central to Celtic religion because of their importance in daily living. Sacred animals are dominant in Celtic imagery (see chapters 6, 8), and this preoccupation with the animal world is mirrored by sacrifices and rituals in holy places, in the sanctuaries where the Celts communed with the supernatural world. Shrines are especially good sites for learning about man-animal relationships. As is the case with sepulchral remains, animal deposits in shrines consist of both creatures which were consumed and those which were not. The former were once again apparently the remnants of ritual feasting, a time for conviviality between gods and humans. The latter were left for the inhabitants of the spirit-world to enjoy.

Many animal bones in sanctuaries bear signs of butchery and culinary preparation by the individuals worshipping there. Gaulish shrines such as Mirebeau (Côte d'Or), Ribemont sur Ancre (Somme) and Digeon (Somme) all contain such evidence. Species of beast, age, and cut of meat were all important. At Digeon, meaty limb-joints were particularly favoured and here, unlike most shrines, wild species are well represented. At Mirebeau, abundant ritual feasting is reflected by the carpet of bones, pots and jewellery on the floor of the shrine. At Gournay (Oise) only young pigs and lambs were eaten. Here, as elsewhere, the animals chosen for ritual consumption were apparently despatched outside the holy place and certain portions of meat only brought into the sanctuary. At Gournay, only the shoulders and long-bones of lambs are present. This may be reflective of elaborate rites associated with the killing of sacred animals, involving a number of different processes. Perhaps one part of the process was a sacrifice performed in a sacred enclosure, some pieces being eaten and the uneaten portions used in other rituals which do not manifest themselves archaeologically. A second series of rites may have included the consumption of portions which had already been butchered prior to being brought into the sanctuary

specifically for a feast in the sacred space.62 One interesting point about the preparation of meat for feasting is that, as seems to have been the case with graves, fire was used only sparingly; there are calcined bones, for instance, at Mirebeau (possibly the remains of a holocaust) but this is relatively uncommon.

The Celtic sanctuary at Gournay is of particular interest in terms of the different rituals represented by the animal deposits on the site. Here, the beasts whose bones were found in the shrine were treated in two entirely different ways: humans devoured the choicest portions of young, succulent pigs and lambs, while the gods seem to have been allotted tough, elderly meat that no human would have wished to eat. This apparently offhand attitude on the part of worshippers may in fact reflect instead a profound belief-system. The uneaten animals were mature horses and cattle. The horses were buried, unbutchered, in the ditch surrounding the sacred site, associated with offerings of weapons; the cattle were over 10 years old and had been used for work as traction animals before being sacrificed, left to decompose in a large pit

within the sanctuary, and then reinterred in a series of ritual acts at the entrance to the shrine.63 The ditch around the holy place at Gournay received both the bones of uneaten cattle and horses and the remains of ritual feasting on pigs and lambs, but the different species occupied discrete areas of the ditch,64 perhaps because the elderly sacrificed and unconsumed beasts had a greater sanctity than the rubbish of the sacred banquet (which none the less had sufficient sanctity to be buried within the consecrated space). Another Gaulish sanctuary where certain animals were not eaten but offered to the gods was Ribemont (Somme), which contained an extraordinary structure or ossuary built almost entirely of human long-bones but with several horse long-bones included as well.65 In the cases where animals were offered, unconsumed, to the supernatural powers, the inference is that they were buried as gifts to the gods of fertility and the chthonic regions, who received the nourishment from the rotting carcases, just as occurred in the pits outside shrines (see pp. 100-5).

Figure 5.9 Late Iron Age bronze boar figurine, Neuvy-en-Sullias, Loiret, France. Height: 68cm. Paul Jenkins.

In Britain, several shrines are associated with animal burials, often in pits. This occurred, for instance, at South Cadbury (Som.), West Uley (Glos.) and Hayling Island (Hants).66 At Uley, the choice of goats and fowl (both relatively uncommon in Romano-Celtic Britain) may reflect a particular cult, that of

Mercury, whose images have been found at the site67 and whose emblems were the goat or ram and the cockerel. At Cambridge, a curious sunken shrine dating to the late second or early third century AD revealed evidence of elaborate animal ritual, involving burials of a complete horse, a bull and hunting-dogs, all carefully arranged.68 Animals in shrines are discussed in more detail in the consideration of individual species which follows.

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