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

4 Site background

The main focus of this paper will be on special animal deposits from two rural settlements in the Dutch river area: Tiel-Passewaaijse Hogeweg and Geldermalsen-Hondsgemet. Passewaaijse Hogeweg (Tiel-PH) is one of two settlements excavated at Tiel-Passewaaij (Heeren 2006; Roymans et al. 2007; Heeren 2009). The settlement was inhabited continuously from around 50 B.C. until 350 A.D., although probably by different people from 270 A.D onwards. Late Iron Age and Early Roman habitation was oriented on a residual channel, which silted up in the late 1st century A.D. The settlement consists of either one or several farmhouses (varying in each phase), with outbuildings, wells and enclosure ditches. The byrehouse is the typical farmhouse for this region, containing space for human habitation and a stable section. Seven habitation phases are distinguished, with the earliest one only yielding some finds but no structures; two later ones (5 and 6) were studied as one phase during the animal bone analysis because of their short time periods and lack of major developments. Tiel-PH is larger than the second settlement at Passewaaij, Oude Tielseweg, and a much larger proportion of the site was excavated. One part of the settlement Oude Tielseweg was excavated by amateur archaeologists, with little time and money, and there is little information on special animal deposits, apart from three dog burials. Furthermore, c. 80% of a cremation cemetery located between the two settlements was excavated and has yielded new insights into the Batavian funerary ritual, including the role of animals (Groot 2008a).

Geldermalsen-Hondsgemet (referred to as ‘Geldermalsen’ below) was also inhabited during the entire Roman period, but habitation there was continuous from earlier in the Late Iron Age (Van Renswoude & Van Kerckhove 2009; Van Renswoude 2009a, 2009b). Similar structures are found there as at Tiel-PH. Five main phases have been distinguished, of which the earliest dates to the Iron Age (200-50 B.C.). Habitation was already intensive during the Iron Age, evidenced by over a hundred small granaries. As at Tiel-PH, farmhouses were situated near a residual channel, of which only a depression remained after the late 1st century AD. In the Middle Roman period, the settlement was structured by ditch systems which enclosed farmyards. Enclosure ditches also surrounded the entire settlement.

Both sites were excavated entirely and analysis shows that they were inhabited continuously during the Roman period and have excellent preservation of finds, including animal bones. The large animal bone assemblages have allowed a reconstruction of the pastoral side of the agrarian economy, showing a specialization in horse breeding in the Middle Roman period. In both settlements, quite a large number of special animal deposits were excavated and described (Groot 2008a, 2008b, 2009). At Tiel-PH, 67 special animal deposits were found, and 47 at Geldermalsen. While some of these can be seen as refuse, others are interpreted as ritual.

Although the two settlements are exceptional as far as excavation and publication is concerned, they were probably average-sized settlements for the Roman Dutch river area, albeit at the larger end of the spectrum (Heeren 2009, 225). The fact that the sites have been excavated by the same excavation team ensures that any comparisons between the settlements are based on a consistent methodology.