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

Deposits of (parts of) animals

While non-bone finds are sometimes interpreted as ritual deposits, when it comes to animal remains in wells these are nearly always seen as the dumping of rubbish, if interpreted at all. Special animal deposits in wells vary from complete skeletons to skulls. They can be present in the fill of a well, in the pit dug when the well was constructed, or in the depression left after a well had been filled up. Dogs seem to be regularly deposited in wells that were also used as rubbish dumps. A skeleton of an adult dog was found in a well at Tiel-PH together with more animal bones. At Geldermalsen an adult male dog was found in the fill of a well (fig. 11). With a withers height of 73 cm, this dog is at the upper end of the range in size of dogs in the Roman Netherlands. An incomplete cattle skull was found next to the dog, but it is not certain whether they were deposited at the same time. Again this well contained some fragmented animal bones from various other animals. In another well, a dog was found in the upper fill. A large bone concentration was found lower in the well (see below). Finally, a partial dog skeleton was found in a well at Naaldwijk, together with bone refuse (Groot 2008c, 180). While the deposition of dogs in wells must have been a deliberate act, the choice for wells that were in use as rubbish dumps suggests that convenience rather than ritual was the motivation behind this act. That is not to say that the disposal of dogs in this way was not surrounded by affinity or affection, as the carcasses could also have been left where they died or dumped outside the settlement.


Fig. 11 Dog skeleton and cattle skull in a well at Geldermalsen-Hondsgemet (photo: ACVU-HBS).

Two wells at Tiel-PH contained skulls that have been interpreted as ritual deposits. The first is the skull of an adult mare with cracks in the frontal bone, indicating that she did not die a natural death. The well contained very few other bones, which indicates that it was not used for dumping rubbish. The second case comprises two complete sheep skulls. Very few other bones were found in the well, but it did contain the mandibles from one of the skulls, as well as three complete cattle scapulae. In this case, the absence of rubbish and the coincidence of finding three complete scapulae is taken as an indicator of intentional deposition. A third example is the nearly complete but not freshly deposited cattle skull in an otherwise empty well at Geldermalsen.

Another deposit of quite different composition from a well at Geldermalsen is a large concentration of cattle bones, representing six cows that were killed and butchered in one event (fig. 12). Of course, it is possible that a disused well was simply seen as a convenient spot to dump a large amount of refuse, but why was it only used as a rubbish dump on one occasion? An argument against an interpretation as a rubbish dump is the inclusion in the deposit of two skulls of other species. Skulls from a male horse and a male sheep were found among the cow bones (fig. 13). The burial of a dog in the top fill of the same well does not seem coincidental and may indicate a communal memory of the location of the previous deposit. Deposits of a horse skull and lower legs were made in the top fills of other wells at Tiel-PH and Geldermalsen (see below).


Fig. 12 Concentration of cattle bones from a well at Geldermalsen-Hondsgemet (photo: ACVU-HBS).


Fig. 13 Skulls of horse, cattle and sheep from the bone concentration in fig. 12 (photo: ACVU-HBS).

It is hard to interpret many of the animal deposits in these wells, especially when the well was clearly used for dumping rubbish. Those that are found in an otherwise empty well, however, are unlikely to represent waste. Deposits of animal remains in wells fit in with other, special non-bone finds from wells in rural settlements.