Ritual burial of dozens of horses from Gallic Wars found

Nine pits containing skeletons of horses buried during the Gallic Wars have been discovered in Villedieu-sur-Indre, central France. Radiocarbon dating of the horse bones found the burials date to the late Gallic/early Roman period, ca. 100 B.C. – 100 A.D.

The 1.3 hectare site is being excavated by archaeologists from France’s National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) before road construction. The investigation revealed evidence of buildings, ditches, pits and a path from an early medieval (5th-6th century A.D.) settlement, as well as the much older horse burial pits.

Only two of the nine pits have been fully excavated so far, the first of them containing the remains of 10 horses, the second containing the remains of only two horses. The skeletons in both pits were complete and articulated. They were carefully and deliberately placed in the pits lying on their right side with their heads pointing south. The horses in the larger pit were arranged in two rows and two layers. The smaller pit had its only two horses in a single row.

All of the horses were adult males over four years of age at time of death. They are small, about 11.8 hands (just under four feet) high at the withers. The positioning and the way the bones of different horses connect in the pit indicates they were all buried at the same time very soon after they died.

Between the two horse pits is another animal burial pit, this one containing the skeletal remains of two adult dogs of medium size. They were also placed with deliberation and care, on their left sides with their heads pointing west.

The remaining pits are being excavated now, and the bones that have emerges thus far bring the total number of horses up to 28. There will be many more added to the tally by time the excavation is complete. Archaeologists hope they will be able to unravel the cause of death. We know it was not an epidemic or the horses would not have been all adult males of the same age.

Similar clusters of horse burials from this period have been found at sites in the Gergovia plain, where the Arverni tribe had their capital and where their chieftain Vercingetorix led his cavalry against the Roman army of Julius Caesar in 52 B.C. and won. Two months later, Caesar won decisively at the Battle of Alesia, forcing Vercingetorix to surrender and ending the Gallic Wars. Villedieu-sur-Indre was also close to a battle between Romans and Gauls. Caesar didn’t record it in Gallic Wars, but Roman sling bullets have been found in the nearby oppidium, so the area was definitely in the thick of the conflict.

Archaeologists believe there is therefore a connection between the horse burials and the battles of the Gallic Wars. The burials are too consistent and tidy for the horses to have been killed in battle. The current hypothesis is that the burials were part of an unknown ritual, that the horses were sacrificed. If so, it would have been a ritual of enormous significance to require the destruction of the core of the battle-seasoned herd.

Neolithic mammoth bones found in Austrian wine cellar

A winemaker in Gobelsburg, Lower Austria, renovating his wine cellar stumbled on some large bones that have proved to be 30,000-40,000-year-old mammoth remains. This is the most significant mammoth bone finding in Austria in more than a century, and the first to be excavated with modern methods.

The winemaker, Andreas Pernerstorfer, discovered the first bone in March, and he thought it was an old piece of wood left by his grandfather. After digging it up a little more, he began to suspect it wasn’t wood. He recalled his grandfather had told Andreas years ago that he had found teeth in the cellar, and that made him suspect his new discovery was a mammoth too.

He reported his discovery to the Federal Monuments Office and they called in a team of archaeologists from the Austrian Archaeological Institute of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW) to investigate the find. Since the excavation began in mid-May, they have unearthed several dense layers of mammoth bones containing the skeletal remains of at least three different mammoths. The team carefully recovered each bone, revealing multiple interlocking bones.

The last comparable discovery in Austria was made not far from the current excavation site: 150 years ago, in an adjacent wine cellar in Gobelsburg, “a mighty bone layer as well as cultural layers with flint artifacts, decorative fossils and charcoal” were also discovered in the ÖAW release: “ During the excavation there, the affected cellars were completely cleared out, and other comparable sites in Austria and neighboring countries were mostly dug at least 100 years ago and are largely lost to modern research.

Stone artifacts and charcoal remains also came to light in the area of ​​the new excavation. Based on this, the team dated the bone remains to be between 30,000 and 40,000 years old. This could have been a place where Stone Age people once rounded up the massive animals or drove them into a trap and killed them. It is hoped that the unusual discovery situation will provide new information about how people organized and carried out the hunt for the animals back then: “We know that people hunted mammoths, but we still know little about how they did it,” [excavation leader Hannah] Parow-Souchon said.

The ÖAW team is recording the site with 3D mapping technology. They hope it will shed light on how the animals died and, if they’re right about the case of death, on how human hunters were able to take down such massive prey.

Once the bones are fully excavated, they will be transferred to the Natural History Museum (NHM) Vienna for additional study and restoration.

Iron Age human sacrifice victim found in Dorset

A woman buried in a grave in Iron Age Dorset has been identified as a likely victim of human sacrifice. There is evidence that she did hard physical labor in her short life, died from being stabbed in the neck, and her body was buried in an anomalous, highly ritualized way. This combination of elements is rare physical and circumstantial evidence that the deceased was killed as an offering.

The grave containing human and animal bones was discovered in 2010 in an excavation of an Iron Age banjo enclosure (round areas bounded by a ditch and embankment with an entrance passage that gives them a banjo-like shape) at Winterborne Kingston in Dorset. Archaeologists found multiple burial pits and traces of roundhouses in the enclosure. In pit 5013, the fully articulated skeleton of an adult was discovered over a layer of animal bones.

Analysis found the body belonged to a woman in her late 20s at time of death. Despite her young age, her vertebrae were damaged from exertion and showed signs of arthritic changes. The areas of muscle attachment indicate her muscles were well-developed from rigorous and consistent physical activity. Stable isotope analysis of her teeth found she grew up more than 20 miles from the Winterborne Kingston enclosure.

The animal bones had been deliberately placed, not just tossed in, with different species (sheep, cow, horse, dog) placed parallel to each other in an off crescent-shaped arrangement. The human body, on the other hand, received no such consideration. She was face down on top of the animal bones, head and legs towards the left side, arms bent at the elbows, hands beneath the body.

Banjo enclosures were in use from around 400 B.C. until the mid-1st century A.D. Accelerator mass spectrometry dating of the bones in pit 5013 to around 351-3 B.C., so this burial dates to the early years of the enclosure practice. It is unique compared to the other burials at Winterborne Kingston and to Iron Age cemeteries elsewhere in Dorset. Typically, bodies were buried with pottery and meat offerings and were respectfully laid to rest.

She also suffered a rib fracture caused by blunt force trauma about three weeks before her death. Healing had begun and appeared to be progressing well when she met her end. Cut marks on her cervical vertebrae indicate a fine bladed weapon had been inserted into her neck from behind, just under the base of the skull. This wound showed no signs of healing, so it was inflicted right before her death. The placement of the body suggests she was killed inside the pit, perhaps with her hands tied, and buried where she fell.

“All the significant facts we have found such as the problems with her spine, her tough working life, the major injury to her rib, the fact she could have come from elsewhere, and the way she was buried could be explained away in isolation,” [Dr. Martin Smith, Associate Professor in Forensic and Biological Anthropology at Bournemouth University,] said.

“But when you put them all together with her deposition face down on a platform of animal bone, the most plausible conclusion is that she has been the victim of a ritual killing. And of course, we found a large cut mark on her neck which could be the smoking gun,” he added.

The team highlight that as well as providing evidence of human sacrifice, being able to understand the life of the Iron Age woman has been important, both in terms of telling her individual story but also in understanding more about less-fortunate members of society in the past.

“The burials that get the most attention tend to be those of higher status, privileged people,” Dr Smith explained. “However, being able to humanise the story of this woman’s life has given us a valuable glimpse into the other side of Iron Age society. Behind every ancient burial we find is someone’s story waiting to be told.”

The findings have been published in The Antiquaries Journal and can be read here.

Missing head of Deva statue found at Angkor Thom

The long-lost head of a Deva statue from the Victory Gate of Angkor Thom has been discovered in a pit at the statue’s feet. Archaeologists from Cambodia’s national heritage authority APSARA unearthed the head in an excavation of the Victory Gate, where the body it was once attached to, the 23rd Deva, still stands guard along with 53 of its colleagues. The head is in comparatively good condition, considering its decapitation and burial. It is only missing its nose and its upper lip.

Established by King Jayavarman VII (r. 1181–1218) in the late 12th century, Angkor Thom was the last capital of the Khmer Empire. Jayavarman built 26-foot high walls surrounding the city with a wide moat around the perimeter. The walled city was entered and exited via five monumental gates, one at each of the cardinal directions, plus a fifth one, the Victory Gate, at the northeast. The extra gate was built to accommodate a pre-existing road that connected the Royal Palace to the East Baray (a man-made water reservoir built around 900 A.D.).

Visitors to the city crossed a causeway over the moat as they approached the gate. The causeway was flanked on both sides with statues of 54 devas and 54 demons, a reference to a Hindu myth of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk in which the opposing powers — gods and demons — worked together to make amrita, the nectar of life that would grant them immortality.

The current excavation at Victory Gate is the assessment phase of a larger restoration project to ensure the long-term stability of

Further excavation revealed that the foundations of the balustrades at the Victory Gate are still strong, as they had been repaired during the post-Angkor and French periods. However, stakeholders have suggested additional digging to assess the overall condition of the bridge and the previous repairs before planning future restoration work on the balustrade statues.

The discovery of the Deva statue head adds to the rich archaeological heritage of Angkor Thom and provides valuable insights into the history and craftsmanship of the ancient Khmer civilization.

Findings published from Narbonne’s extraordinary Roman necropolis

The final report of the excavation of the exceptional La Robine Roman necropolis in Narbonne has been released and the large number of artifacts recovered from the graves have been formally handed over to the Narbo Via museum.

Between 2017 and 2020, Archaeologists from the National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) excavated 1.2 acres less than half a mile east of the ancient city walls prior to the construction of new residential buildings. In 18 months of excavation of the necropolis after the first graves were discovered, a total of 1,430 burials and another 450 funerary structures from the Early Imperial period (1st-early 3rd century A.D.) were unearthed.

The architecture and contents of the necropolis were in an excellent state of conservation, preserved under a thick layer of silt from the Aude River. The condition, number and diversity of the structures and tombs make his burial ground a unique reference site for the funerary practices of Roman Gaul.

The necropolis was divided into funerary enclosures delineated by masonry walls and service roads for access. Cremation was the most common, with 1166 structures relating to the cremation of bodies and containing cinerary remains. Inhumation burial was found in 266 tombs, half of which contained the remains of children.

The Robine necropolis exceptionally documents the funeral rites carried out at the beginning of our era. This is the case for libation conduits, often destroyed by later developments: this device is identified here in half of the pyre tombs and a quarter of the secondary deposits. These tubes, often made up of pieces of amphorae, made it possible to introduce the offerings inside the tomb, as close as possible to the remains of the deceased, whose memory was thus perpetuated, particularly on the occasion of annual funeral festivals such as the Parentalia. Celebrated in Rome in February, they ended with the Feralia during which the family shared a meal near the tomb and offered a sacrifice in honor of the Mane gods. Evidence of these activities was found at La Robine, where several triclinia , that is to say masonry banquet beds that could accommodate meals organized by the family, were unearthed.

The evolution of the necropolis has been carefully studied. Inrap archaeologists have highlighted rearrangements by moving boundaries, grouping plots together or, on the contrary, by subdivisions and recompositions. From the middle of the 1st century, large masonry enclosures were created in the northern district on the site of several plots, and encroaching on circulation spaces. From the end of the 1st century, the increase in the number of burials required the extension of the necropolis and new masonry enclosures were created in several places in the funerary district. These plots closed by high walls could be decorated with marble funerary plaques bearing epitaphs. These, often found reused, provide information through onomastics about the population of this necropolis. Mainly made up of freedmen of Italian origin, it is representative of the plebs who animated the economic life of the city.

Analysis of the inhumation remains found that burial method was connected to the age of the deceased, with adults placed in wooden coffins and children placed in covered pits. Analysis of the residues in pyres and ossuary vessels found that the volume of cinerary remains varied significantly based on the type of enclosure, indicating different enclosures had different kinds of pyres.

Both cremation and inhumation burials contained drinking vessels, lamps and unguent/perfume bottles, sometimes deliberately broken or flipped upside down. Large quantities of grave goods were found placed in the burials intact: ceramic vases, amphorae, glass vessels, coins, jewelry, decorative objects made of bone, ivory and metal, amulets made of beads, animal teeth, bells and phallic pendants. The charred remains of food offerings are primarily plant material, including dates, figs, cereals and bread.