Archive for December 3rd, 2009

Ooh! An aurochs skull!

Thursday, December 3rd, 2009

Aurochs skull and red deer antlersThe skull of an aurochs, the huge wild cattle which once roamed the forests of Europe, has been found in Northumberland, England. The aurochs went extinct on the island about 4,000 years ago.

Radiocarbon dating puts this skull between 5670-5520 B.C., so 3,500 years before the last aurochs kicked England’s dirt of its hooves. Two red deer antlers from the same period were found along with the skull.

The bones were preserved in a peat pocket, against all odds in the middle of a working wet quarry. Fragments would have been far more likely a find instead of this pristine complete skull and horns.

The startling discovery was made at Thompsons of Prudhoe’s Haughton Strother quarry near Humshaugh.

‘If the excavator bucket had been 10 centimetres either side it would have smashed the skull,’ said Robin Taylor-Wilson, director of Durham-based Pre-Construct Archaeology, who advise Thompson’s of Prudhoe.

‘It is very rare to find a complete auroch skull, but it came out hanging off the bucket from a wet area as if it was meant to be.

‘The find is of an animal which lived thousands of years before that, and one which would have been a prize capture for dinner for the hunter gatherers of the time.’

Given that aurochs were 6 feet tall at the shoulders and grumpy as hell, I can well believe it. They also had wicked horns that pointed forward instead of upwards, the better to gore you with, my dear.

Drinking horn made from the last aurochs, ca. 1627Aurochs have played a quasi-mythic role in human iconography. They were painted by our Paleolithic ancestors on the Lascaux Cave walls, they decorated Babylon’s Ishtar Gate along with dragons and lions, Julius Caesar wrote about their fierceness and prized horns made into drinking vessels in Chapter 6, para 28 of his Gallic War. Even Nabokov gave them top billing ahead of angels in the last sentence of Lolita.

The last European aurochs died in Poland in 1627. Her skull was taken as war booty by the Swedes 30 years later and is now on display in the Royal Armoury in Stockholm.

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