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

7.6 Burials and deposits in enclosure ditches

Special animal deposits are often found in settlement enclosure ditches. Skeletons of a cow, a dog, a red deer, a combination deposit of a complete dog and a horse skull, several horse skulls and one dog skull were all recovered from Middle and Late Roman enclosure ditches at Tiel-PH (fig. 23). The skull and mandibles of a ram were found in the eastern enclosure ditch of Geldermalsen phase 4, right across from the main entrance point to the settlement (fig. 24; Groot 2009, 392). Other finds from enclosure ditches include a skeleton of a piglet, two cow skeletons, two dog skeletons and a horse skull. The animal deposits are not confined to corners or entrances. It may be that marking the boundary between settlement space and outside space was one of the aims. The horse skull from Geldermalsen (fig. 4) was found in a ditch surrounding a farmyard for which the percentage of horse bones was relatively high. A specialisation in horse breeding was suggested for the family inhabiting this house; in that case, the choice of animal for the deposit reflects the livelihood of the family.


Fig. 23 Distribition of special animal deposits and their interpretation for phase 7, Tiel-Passewaaijse Hogeweg (illustration: Stijn Heeren and Bert Brouwenstijn, ACVU).


Fig. 24 Skull of a ram found in the enclosure ditch of Geldermalsen-Hondsgemet (photo: ACVU-HBS).

At Heeten, horse and cattle burials were related to enclosure ditches by orientation and proximity. A burial of a red deer was located just outside the enclosure and therefore associated with the natural world outside the settlement (Lauwerier et al. 1999, 180-181, 186). Two animal burials are interpreted as having marked the entrance to the settlement; the others are seen as site sacrifices, demarcating or confirming the enclosure of the settlement. A similar interpretation is given for two complete pots in a pit in the south-western corner of the enclosure (Lauwerier et al. 1999, 186).

A region where animal deposits have also been linked with enclosures is Midden-Delfland. Animal burials were often present at the boundaries of settlement space. A revealing result of the excavation methods of the large-scale research in this area – ditches were followed into the surrounding land and complete field systems could thus be reconstructed – is that special deposits also occur in isolated locations. Three cattle burials were found in the middle of a field system. A cluster of pits containing several special animal deposits was located between two settlements (Van Londen 2006, 70, 85, 131). At Geldermalsen a skull-and-lower-legs deposit was also found in a field ditch outside the settlement.

Coin finds from Geldermalsen can also be related to enclosure ditches, with a concentration of coins found in the western corner of the settlement enclosure and a high number of coins deposited on one side of the entrance to the settlement (Aarts 2009, 293, 296). While coins may have a higher chance of being lost along roads and at settlement entrances, this does not explain their concentration on one side and near absence on the other side of the entrance. Entering or leaving the settlement was clearly associated with ritual practices. Apart from coins and animal deposits, complete pots are also found in ditches at Geldermalen (Van Kerckhove 2009, 183). A complete coarse ware pot was also found in the main ditch of a field system in Midden-Delfland site 01.23, opposite the farmhouse, and interpreted as a ritual deposit (Van Londen 2006, 36).