Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries 1-2 (November 2009)Maaike Groot: Searching for patterns among special animal deposits in the Dutch river area during the Roman period

8 Discussion

Special animal deposits are present throughout the Netherlands at sites from the Roman period. They show a large variety, but nevertheless parallels for many deposits from the Dutch river area can be found in other regions in the Netherlands. Synthetic studies for different regions are needed to discover whether the similarities outweigh the differences. While a detailed description per site remains essential, a wider comparison is necessary to reveal patterns. Animal remains are not the only objects selected for structured deposition. Foundation deposits of complete ceramic vessels, for instance, are regularly found in postholes. Metal objects and coins are sometimes found and interpreted as hoards or votive deposits. The exceptional preservation at settlements in a peat area in the province of Noord-Holland has shown that wooden artefacts were also selected for deposition (Therkorn 2005, 36). Wells from other regions are the only places where wood has been preserved and they reveal deposition of ladders, spades and (broken) bowls.

Some patterns can be identified among the special animal deposits from the Dutch River Area and these patterns also apply to other find categories. In some cases, such as deposits in wells, it is only when we include find categories other than bone that we can interpret them. I see no reason to distinguish between a foundation offering of a pot, a coin hoard and a deposit of skull and lower limbs. All are intentional deposits that may or may not have occurred in a ritual context. Distinguishing between find categories such as pottery, metal and bone is a modern construct, what is clear is that all were used for deposition in the past. Ideally, a study of settlement rituals would include all deposits, whether of animal remains, artefacts or coins. Such an integrated approach would provide a much better insight into ritual practices in domestic contexts. The combination of finds may be even more important than the finds by themselves and even broken objects may have been used for ritual deposition (Hill 1995, 108-109, 126). Sceptics need only think of the deliberate destruction of metal finds in votive deposits, for instance at the cult place at Kessel/Lith (Roymans 2004, 108, 133-34). It is not far-fetched to assume that things selected for deposition in settlement rituals were also destroyed. A pot could be broken, an animal killed, and cereals burned.

It is obvious that it was everyday objects that were selected for ritual deposition, namely pottery, bones and ladders. Archaeologists should use this as a clue to the nature of the ritual instead of seeing this overlap between ritual and daily life as a problem (Bradley 2005, 36). Some of the finds from wells – wagon wheels and plough shares – may be related to the practice of depositing objects in bogs in north-western Europe in the same period, where wagon wheels and ards are relatively common (Bradley 2005, 82-85). Further studies of finds from settlements and combinations of finds are clearly needed to identify meaningful patterns.

The three rural temples in the Dutch river area demonstrate that the people inhabiting this area practised religion in a Roman way. This is supported by finds of statuettes of Roman gods and altars dedicated by Batavians. Religion was expressed in a different way in the villages where they lived. Animals, artefacts, wood and cereals were buried or deposited at meaningful locations. The intention behind some of these deposits may have been to communicate with supernatural powers. However, Bradley argues that not all rituals reflect religious beliefs (2005, 33). Several themes can be identified when it comes to the reasons and beliefs behind the deposits of animal remains and other objects. The life cycle of farmhouses and wells was punctuated by ritual practices. Foundation deposits and abandonment deposits can be recognised for both farmhouses and wells. Site maintenance practices are harder to identify. Bradley suggests that the intention behind offerings of living matter (human or animal remains and food) was to animate the newly built house (2005, 52). The location of many deposits in or near enclosure ditches indicates that marking boundaries, perhaps with the intent of protecting those within, was also important. Seasonality and the marking of time is believed to have been important in settlement rituals in Noord-Holland (Therkorn 2004). The fertility of livestock and crops must have been surrounded by rituals but so far there is little concrete evidence for this among the special deposits from the Roman Netherlands.

In the past, studies of ritual practice have focused on cult places and cemeteries. While complete animal skeletons have received some attention, they and other deposits have not been subjected to systematic studies. This fits in with the supposition that ritual should be separated from daily life and also makes for easy interpretations. Considering the increasing emphasis on the interrelationship between ritual and daily life, settlement rituals deserve much more attention. Despite the complications involved in identifying the meaning behind the deposition of organic remains and objects, it should at least be possible to recognise intentional deposition.