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.