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

6 Types of special animal deposits

What is special about special animal deposits? A special animal deposit consists of animal remains that deviate from what is perceived as a normal pattern of butchery and consumption waste. The difference can relate to preservation, fragmentation, species or combination of several species, skeletal elements or the number of animal bones. In this sense, special animal deposits also include industrial or craft waste, since the composition of this type of refuse is also atypical for butchery or consumption waste. Dumped carcasses are also special animal deposits. The location, the way in which the remains are buried, and/or an association with other, non-bone finds should allow us to identify ritual animal deposits.

Five types of special animal deposits can be recognised in settlements in the Dutch river area:

1. Complete animals (fig. 3). Burials of complete animals are frequently found in rural settlements. While dogs and horses are overrepresented, other species are also found.


Fig. 3 Complete skeleton of a dog from Tiel-Passewaaij (photo: ACVU-HBS).

2. Separate skulls, with or without mandibles (fig. 4). Complete skulls occur as special deposits. They are difficult to interpret when found without associated special material. Completeness is one of the criteria which may indicate ritual burial. Preservation is probably not a good indicator. A complete skull may point to the immediate burial of a killed animal’s head (and perhaps selection of an individual animal for sacrifice), but an older skull may have been curated or displayed.


Fig. 4 Skull of a horse in a ditch at Geldermalsen-Hondsgemet (photo: ACVU-HBS).

3. Separate articulated (lower) limbs. Articulated legs are found on their own or as part of larger deposits. A common subtype of this type of deposit is that of a skull and lower limbs (fig. 5). While these are often seen as butchery waste, there are indications that they should rather be seen as structured deposits. The elements are buried together, without other refuse, and often one or more limbs are missing. It is important to realise that it was not bare bones that were deposited, but an entire head and lower legs, and possibly also the skin.


Fig. 5 Deposit of a horse skull and two lower legs from Geldermalsen-Hondsgemet (photo: ACVU-HBS).

4. Concentration of unarticulated remains (fig. 6). It is characteristically the representation of more individuals and the excellent preservation that suggests that the animal bones are the remains of a single event. Only one or two animal species are present in large numbers. The deposits that I know of comprise only horse, only cattle, only sheep, cattle and horse, or cattle and pig (Groot 2008a, 134-135, 137; 2009, 401-404; Lauwerier et al. 1999, 176-177). The high proportion of complete (unbroken) bones indicates an abundance of meat and wastage of meat and marrow. The bones are clearly the remains of one large butchery event, possibly associated with feasting. It is, however, also possible that they reflect normal autumn slaughter.


Fig. 6 Concentration of unarticulated remains from Tiel-Passewaaijse Hogeweg (photo: ACVU-HBS).

5. Combination. This type of deposit is a combination of two of the first four types, for instance a complete skeleton and a separate skull (fig. 7). The four deposits of this category from Tiel-PH comprise more than one animal species.


Fig. 7 Combination deposit of a dog skeleton and a horse skull. Tiel-Passewaaijse Hogeweg (photo: ACVU-HBS).

The first four types were found at Geldermalsen, and all five at Tiel-PH. Which types occur at other sites is probably related to a large extent to the individual attention paid by archaeologists to the details of find conditions. Separate skulls and articulated limbs are still seen by many as ordinary butchery refuse and not deserving special mention in excavation reports. The same can be said for concentrations of unarticulated remains. The only type of deposit that is nearly always mentioned and illustrated in excavation reports is that of complete animal burials, although even these are still mainly interpreted as dumps.