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
7 Recognising patterns

7.2 Emphasising and manipulating (lower) limbs

A common type of special animal deposit is that of a skull and lower limbs and variations on this theme. Traditionally, this deposit type was seen as typical butchery waste, based on the fact that skull and lower limbs contain little meat. An animal skull does, however, carry some meat, and the brain is a delicacy in some cultures. Besides, there is another reason for seeing these deposits in a different context: missing legs.

The first example is from Tiel-PH, and consists of an adult horse skull with mandibles and three lower limbs. The right foreleg is missing. This deposit was found in the upper fill of a well. A second deposit, also from a well, comprises the skull, neck and three lower limbs of an adult sheep, the left hind leg is missing in this case. The third deposit, this time of a calf, consists of a skull with mandibles and three lower limbs and the right foreleg is missing (fig. 14). An example from Geldermalsen is a horse skull (without mandibles) buried upside down with two crossed lower legs (fig. 5). This deposit was found in the fill of a well outside the settlement. The smashed frontal bone is a sign of a non-natural death. Cut marks indicate the removal of the mandibles and the tongue. Only the two forelegs were present. A cattle skull and two lower forelegs were buried in another pit at the same site. A deposit of a horse skull and two lower legs from Tiel-Bedrijvenpark (Medel site 6) looks very similar to one from Geldermalsen (fig. 15; Groot 2005, 63, 68).


Fig. 14 Deposit of a cattle skull and three lower legs from Tiel-Passewaaijse Hogeweg (photo: ACVU-HBS).


Fig. 15 Deposit of a horse skull and two lower legs from Tiel-Bedrijvenpark (Medel vindplaats 6) (photo: ACVU-HBS).

Outside the research area, a deposit of a skull and one lower leg of a young cow occurred in a ditch enclosing a small rectangular area at Poeldijk (Groot 2007, 86). A deposit of a horse skull and four lower legs found near a house at Den Haag-Johan Willem Frisolaan was interpreted as a foundation deposit (De Hingh & Van Ginkel 2009, 103). One of the possible interpretations of this structure was a ritual enclosure. A cow skull and three lower legs were found at Schagen-Muggenburg II (Therkorn 2004, 51). A deposit from Naaldwijk probably represents a double burial of the ‘skull-and-three-legs’ deposit, with two horse skulls, six lower legs and a series of vertebrae (fig. 16; Groot 2008c, 187).


Fig. 16 Concentration of horse bones from Naaldwijk (photo: ADC).

An interesting phenomenon occurring in deposits of skull and lower legs is that often one or more legs are absent. This is not simply a result of elements being accidentally removed during excavation; in that case, at least some of the smaller bones of the missing leg would be present. The recurrent pattern of missing legs is an argument against an interpretation as butchery waste. It also makes it less likely that the skull and lower limbs represent animal skins.

There is also a series of finds of one or more lower limbs without skulls. An example of a deposit of all four lower limbs is from Tiel-PH, where four horse lower legs were buried without a skull. A single right lower back leg from a young horse was buried in a ditch surrounding an Early Roman house at Tiel-PH. A front leg of a horse, complete from the radius down, was found in a ditch at Geldermalsen together with the phalanges of a second leg. The ditch was part of a ditch structure where several other remarkable finds were encountered, including a concentration of burned cereals (barley, emmer wheat and oat), three brooches, a piece of La Tène glass, two pots and several pieces of stone (Van Renswoude 2009a, 95). Two front legs of a horse were found together at the settlement of Rijswijk-De Bult (Clason 1978, 426). A deposit of three lower legs of a horse was found in a pit at Schagen-Muggenburg I (Therkorn 2004, 24). Articulated horse legs were also deposited at sites in Midden-Delfland (Van Londen 2006, 131, 150).

Further evidence for the manipulation of (lower) limbs is found in animal burials. Several lower limbs were missing from horse burials at Druten (see below), as was the right lower forelimb of a calf buried in Midden-Delfland (Van Wijngaarden-Bakker 1996, 20, 23). In a horse burial from Naaldwijk, all four lower legs of a 12-month-old horse were absent (Groot 2008c, 184; fig. 17). In a second horse burial at Naaldwijk, the front legs were missing but some smaller bones are present. Since the humeri are damaged, it is almost certain that the front legs were accidentally removed during excavation. This is clearly different from the first horse, where no bones from the lower limbs were present at all and no damage to the other limb bones was observed. Missing foot bones in a horse burial have also been noted for Schagen-Muggenburg I (Therkorn 2004, 24). A possible explanation for missing limbs in otherwise complete animal burials is that elements have been removed for bone working, although the author also considers the possibility that excavation methods are responsible for the missing bones (Lauwerier 1988, 107). While metapodials of horse and cattle were certainly used for making artefacts, they are frequently found intact among refuse in rural settlements. It seems unlikely that they were removed from an animal that was buried when so many were routinely discarded during butchery. An additional argument supporting a symbolic explanation is a dog burial from Schagen-Muggenburg I, where seven toes had been cut off (Therkorn 2004, 24).


Fig. 17 Burial of a horse at Naaldwijk. The lower legs are absent (photo: ADC).