17th c. Ottoman war camel unearthed in Austria

In 2006, archaeologists excavating a site of a future shopping center in the town of Tulln on the Danube in Lower Austria discovered the skeleton of a large mammal. The location once boasted a tavern named “Auf der Rossmühle” (On the Mill) and it was in what would have been the tavern’s cellar that they found the skeleton. At first they thought it was a bovine or a very large horse, but archaeozoologist Dr. Alfred Galik identified it as a camel.

Testing of both the mitochondrial DNA and the nuclear DNA confirmed the morphological evidence that the animal was a hybrid of a dromedary mother and a Bactrian camel father. Its teeth and bones indicate the animal was an adult male, probably gelded, older than seven years. Lesions on the mandible show the camel was accustomed to wearing a harness and lesions on the shoulder blades were likely caused by the animal being made to rise and sit frequently to allow riders to mount and dismount. These are relatively minor repetitive stress deformities. Had the lad been used as a beast of burden, there would be significantly more damage to the bones. He was also fairly slender, so not ideally suited to bearing heavy loads but well suited as a riding animal. There are no signs of abuse or malnutrition. This guy was treated well.

Researchers were able to date the animal with some precision to the second half of the 17th century thanks to artifacts found buried in the backfill with the remains. A Rechenpfenning, a coin or token used for math calculations rather than legal tender, bearing the face of King Louis XIV dates to between 1643 and 1715. A lead bottle containing the cure-all theriac (I don’t think this one is going to get revived any time soon) labeled with the name of a Vienna apothecary’s shop placed it squarely in the 17th century as “Apotheke zur Goldenen Krone” was in business between 1628 and 1665. Documentary evidence found that the the property changed hands in 1690 which is doubtless when the cellar was backfilled for new construction above it.

While camel remains ranging in date from the Roman to the early modern era have been discovered before in Central Europe, they were disarticulated bones or partial skeletons at best. This is the first complete camel skeleton found and the timing makes it all the more intriguing because the late 17th century saw the final culmination of three centuries of war between Habsburg Austria and the Ottoman Empire where the camels came from. The overwhelming victory of the allied European powers at the Battle of Vienna in September of 1683 marked the turning point. Fighting continued until the Treaty of Karlowitz was signed in 1699, but the Ottoman forces were on the defensive the entire time and ultimately lost Hungary and Transylvania for good.

One of the leaders of the Holy League alliance, King of Poland John III Sobieski, who famously led the largest cavalry charge in history (18,000 horsemen) to inflict the coup de grace on the struggling Ottomans at the Battle of Vienna, wrote to his wife afterwards:

God and our Lord forever blessed be, He gave victory and glory to our people as the past centuries never knew before. All over the camp, countless riches fall into our hands. The enemy, their dead littering fields and the camp, flees in confusion. Camels, mules, cattle, sheep, which it had on the sides, our troops now take….

Tulln is just 25 miles northwest of Vienna. It was the staging ground where the allied troops met before the Battle of Vienna. Perhaps this camel made his way to the city as part of the spoils King John III Sobieski mentioned, or it may have been part of a peaceable exchange earlier that summer. Ottoman troops occupied the countryside around Tulln in August of 1683 but never conquered the town. Diplomatic channels were open since the Holy Roman Emperor’s ambassador and his secretary were released to Tulln by the Ottomans at that time.

We know it wasn’t still in Ottoman hands when it died, because they would have butchered it (which is part of the reason why there are so few complete camel remains found in Europe). There are no cut marks on the bone and the position of the articulated skeleton means it was buried intact. Researchers believe the camel may have been kept as an exotic animal exhibit in Tulln. With little experience in the care and feeding of camels and limited resources in a time of war, the locals probably wouldn’t have been ideal zookeepers. When the camel died a few years later, it was put in the cellar with a bunch of trash and covered by the backfill.

13 thoughts on “17th c. Ottoman war camel unearthed in Austria

  1. Interesting story, thanks!

    Also, I bet you’ve been waiting for years to write a headline with the term “war camel” in it. Congratulations!

  2. …when I was twelve, I had the dubious privilege of riding a camel by the name of Kojak on a desert tour. He was a lovely creature, fair of form and lean, just as the one in this article was, but he had this unfortunate habit of turning his head around and “smiling” at the child on his back with huge, yellow teeth that looked more adapted to chomping fingers and toes than vegetative matter.

    But his feet were amazing. They were like waterballoons filled with jello, stepping on the pebbles and shale and just spreading out to fit. And someone had trained him to moderate the sway of his body, so he had the beautifully smooth gait that make camels the ships of the desert, but little of the seasickness-inducing roll. And he was tall. Riding him was comparable to being at the top of a tree when the wind is blowing, with all of the gorgeous and slightly alien views available from a higher vantage.

    When he broke into a run, though, it was rather uncomfortable. The run of a camel, at least in a saddle accoutrement without stirrups, is more bone-jarring than the worst trot of a horse. How is it possible to have a war camel, when riding them gets worse with speed, rather than better? It would throw off weaponry aim horribly. Were they not used as charging animals?

    Ah well. I think 12-year-old me would have taken Kojak’s grinning a little better had someone intimated that he was a war camel. That would have explained those teeth nicely.

    1. I rode a camel once too. His name, alas, escapes me now, but I know exactly what you mean about that running gait. Also the waterballoons filled with jello. You should develop your quick research into a whole paper on camels and camalry.

  3. After spending some of my free (read: enforced idle) time today light-researching to answer my own questions, I can report that there are disappointingly few credible sources readily available that discuss camel cavalry (? Really?) battle methodology. But, bottom line up front, the answer is “no, camels are not used as mounted charging animals.” Generally, at least. Not since we developed ranged artillery.

    The most recent reported mass-camel mounted charge occurred in 1915 at the Suez Canal. places it, but go into how it was The rest of the sources tend to hold that if one wants to combine camels with guns, then the best tactic is to ride into battle, make them stop and lay down, dismount, and either act as infantry () or reassemble your heavy artillery that the camels were carrying and set up a station. Or, if you really wanted, you could on

    Putting the guns or crossbows on the camels seems to have been a natural extension of the of using camels for Though, if you really want to make the camels weaponry bearers, it might be simpler to do as Timur the Mongol did, , or take a page from Cyrus,

    There’s apparently some evidence that there were (which makes me want to rewatch videos of with an eye to judging how effective blade and lance use might be on camel-back, compared to horseback), but the topic doesn’t seem to be much covered on the Internet outside of a game that features scimitar-throwing camel cavalry.

    Nope. By most near-modern accounts, war camels were less often used in charges, more often used in , and are now relegated to the duty of of patrols.

    (Here’s hoping that the coding went right.)

    1. Holy smokes, SourceRunner, that is some impressive light research. I’d like to see your heavy research sometime! Fascinating stuff. I hadn’t even thought of exactly how the camels would have been deployed in battle.

  4. Now you’ve got me looking around too 🙂 I found a few mentions of camels used in pre-Renaissance battles, including some bearing heavy armor, which would point more towards an in-combat use rather than only troop transport:


    Without getting my hands on the book referenced though, we haven’t anything on how effective (or not) it was.

    I did get to find out about an interesting wife of Muhammad, ‘Ā’ishah bint Abī Bakr. “During the reign of Ali, she wanted to avenge Uthman’s death, which she attempted to do in the Battle of the Camel. She participated in the battle by giving speeches and leading troops on the back of her camel. She ended up losing the battle, but her involvement and determination left a lasting impression.”

  5. the “buried whole” thing seems odd to me–not disbelieving but it seems odd to have just dumped the whole animal out with the trash. Although, I did that with a mouse once that the cat brought me, so perhaps it’s not too different.

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