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

3 The study of special animal deposits

Special animal deposits have been studied extensively for the Iron Age hillfort Danebury in southern England. Grant interpreted the burials of animal (and human) remains at this site as ritual (Grant 1984, 543). Others, such as Cunliffe and Hill, have made important contributions to the understanding of this phenomenon. Cunliffe saw the deposits of animal and human remains in Iron Age pits as part of a fertility rite, in which the gods were thanked for protecting the cereals during storage and asked for a good harvest (Cunliffe 1993, 22-27). Hill examined special deposits – or as he preferred to call them Articulated/Associated Bone Groups – from Danebury and other hillforts in a detailed study. He included non-bone finds to determine how the pit fills were built up and by what activities and processes they were produced (Hill 1995, 1, 30-31). He emphasised the importance of studying formation processes and, including all categories of material, to find out whether finds in special deposits have a different ‘signature’ from finds in non-special deposits (Hill 1995, 16-17).

Burials of complete animals have long been recognised in Dutch excavations (e.g. the burial of two horses and a dog uncovered by Van Giffen in the 1930s in an early medieval cemetery in De Bouwerd, Ezinge; Boersma 1980; Prummel 1993, 53-54), and some special deposits of skulls and articulated remains have also been published in the past (Bogaers 1955; Clason 1978, 426; Van Giffen 1963). Van Es recognised the significance of animal burials in Wijster, where he related the deposits to houses (Van Es 1967). Animal skeletons were also interpreted as building deposits in Druten (Hulst 1978). Deposits of animal parts are, however, not always described in excavation reports, and their potential is still underestimated. In general, when special deposits are mentioned scant attention is paid to the archaeological context and no attempt is made to relate them to religious practices. This is partly a result of the small number of deposits per site but also because archaeologists have generally viewed animal skeletons or articulated remains as dumps. Detailed analyses of special deposits, whether of animal remains or other finds, are rare. An excellent recent example is the excavation report of a terp at Englum, Groningen, where special deposits of human and animal remains were described in detail, including information on other finds and formation processes (Nieuwhof 2007). Another recent study set out to understand special deposits within their context. Therkorn focused on settlement rituals in several settlements from the Late Iron Age and Roman period in Noord-Holland (Therkorn 2004). The excellent preservation made it possible to include deposits of wood in the study. Therkorn viewed pits and ditches with special deposits as part of stellar constellations projected on the settlement plan. Therkorn's interpretations remain controversial, but an undeniable strength of her study is as a data set of a large number of carefully excavated deposits. I analysed special animal deposits from Tiel-Passewaaij as part of my doctoral research and more recently from a similar site, Geldermalsen-Hondsgemet (Groot 2008a, 2009). Synthetic studies of special deposits or ritual practices in Iron Age or Roman-period settlements in the Netherlands are rare (see for instance Van Hoof 2007 for deposits associated with houses).

A recent French study focuses mainly on rituals in sanctuaries and includes data for a number of sites (Lepetz & Van Andringa 2008a). The methodology and related problems for studying animal bones from sanctuaries are discussed in one of the first chapters (Lepetz & Van Andringa 2008b). The authors emphasise the importance of an understanding of the formation processes involved and of course this is also important for settlement contexts. Another paper describes deposits in a domestic context, but the deposits themselves (complete pots with food portions of pork and beef) are very different from the ones we find in our region (Lepetz et al. 2008). A third paper includes criteria for interpreting animal burials as ritual, but the uniqueness of some of the French sites (for instance the 'animal cemeteries') means that the approach cannot be applied directly to Dutch settlement sites (Lepetz & Meniel 2008).