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

1 Introduction

The temples from the Roman period in the Netherlands are built in a Roman architectural style and dedicated to gods that look Roman. Ritual practices in the sanctuaries also fit neatly with our knowledge of Roman religion. This suggests that the prevailing religion in the region conformed to Roman religious practice (Derks 1998; 2002). However, the rural settlements in the area provide a more complex picture of religion and ritual. Bronze statuettes of Roman gods are found next to structured deposition, both of pottery and of parts of animals. The study of structured deposition, both of animal remains and other material categories, seems the most promising way to discover how religion and beliefs were applied in daily life within the settlements in the Roman Netherlands. Burying objects or (parts of) animals underground was clearly perceived as a meaningful act, meant to achieve certain goals or to keep some control in special situations.

The interpretation of burials of complete animals as anything other than dumped carcasses on the basis of clear methodology remains rare within Dutch archaeology. Some examples where animal burials are seen as 'special' can be found in Lauwerier 2002 and 2004. Generally, deposits of articulated remains and loose skulls are still seen as butchery waste, while deposits of unarticulated remains are often not even considered worthy of mention (with some exceptions: Lauwerier 2002, 2004; Prummel & Van der Sanden 1995). This, however, does not explain recurrent, seemingly non-functional, patterns such as the selection of certain body parts, the burial of wild animals, and the combination of animal remains with non-bone finds. Ultimately, the interpretation of such special animal bone assemblages as waste or as structured deposits generally seems to be based on personal assessments and not on sound argumentation. Modern values are often unconsciously applied. Studies of special deposits of animal remains and other finds should question the intentionality of deposits and develop arguments for a ritual versus non-ritual interpretation.

One way to get a better grasp of settlement rituals and structured deposition is to search for patterns among the deposits – based on the fact that rituals are often conservative and repetitive. Another is to include deposits of other material categories in an analysis. Recent evidence demonstrates that the practice of structured deposition of animal remains is much more common during the Roman period than previously believed (Therkorn 2004; Van Londen 2006; Groot 2008a, 2009). This paper will explore whether recurrent patterns can be recognised among these deposits, and whether we should differentiate between deposits of animal remains (often controversial) and deposits of items that are seen as valuable (complete pots, coins). This will not be a regional survey, but a selective look at special animal deposits from rural settlements in order to demonstrate the importance of this phenomenon. The focus will be on the Dutch river area, since the number of excavated sites and the excellent bone preservation resulted in a rather rich data set for this region. I will, however, refer to examples from other regions in the Netherlands where relevant.

The following questions will be taken into account:

- How do special animal deposits in the Dutch river area compare to those in other parts of the Netherlands?

- Which recurrent patterns can be identified among special animal deposits?

- Are special animal deposits comparable to other deposits in settlements, such as foundation offerings and coin hoards?

- Can patterns found among special animal deposits be extended to other find categories?

- Should we really distinguish between deposits of animal remains and deposits of other types of material, such as pottery and coins?

- What can we say about the diversity of the inferred rituals and about the intentions or beliefs behind them?

First, the archaeological background of the study area will be described, followed by a brief history of the study of special animal deposits. The next paragraph will introduce two settlements in the Dutch river area that have yielded a large number of special animal deposits. Some aspects of ritual, and the possibilities to identify ritual in archaeology, are discussed. Different types of special animal deposits will then be described, and for each some examples will be given from the study area itself and from other regions in the Netherlands. The question of what makes an animal deposit special will also be addressed. I will then describe several patterns that can be identified among the special animal deposits in the Dutch river area and extend these to other types of material. The paper ends with a short discussion on the future of the study of special animal deposits and ritual practice within settlements.


Fig. 1 Locations of sites mentioned in this article: 1. Englum, 2. Ezinge, 3. Midlaren, 4. Schagen, 5. Wijster, 6. Heeten, 7. Den Haag, 8. Naaldwijk, 9. Poeldijk, 10. Rijswijk, 11. Midden-Delfland, 12. Leidse Rijn, 13. Geldermalsen-Hondsgemet, 14. Tiel-Medel &. Tiel-Passewaaij, 15. Kesteren, 16. Druten, 17. Empel, 18. Breda, 19. Deurne, 20. Nederweert.