A Horn Worth Blowing? A Stray Find of Aurochs from Hungary

By Bartosiewicz, Laszlo | Antiquity, December 1997 | Go to article overview
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A Horn Worth Blowing? A Stray Find of Aurochs from Hungary

Bartosiewicz, Laszlo, Antiquity

Three aurochs horn cores, unearthed during the construction of the city baths in Vac (Hungary), were purchased from a private collector in 1951. One of these stray finds deserves attention in light of new archaeozoological research, and the relation between mundane horn manufacturing and high-status medieval craft industries.

The find and its context

For 45 years, three subfossil horn cores of aurochs without exact provenance have lain forgotten in the Vac municipal museum. Two are unworked. The third - 1568 g, slightly twisted, left horn core [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED] - is thought-provoking: it may represent rare debris from sophisticated decorative horn manufacturing whose end-products are known from treasuries throughout Europe. In the absence of funds for radiocarbon dating, this research hypothesis was tested by reviewing the find's morphometric traits within a broad multidisciplinary context.

The find undoubtedly originates from a mature aurochs (Bos primigenius Bojanus 1827) bull. Of the 11,733 identifiable medieval animal bones from 11 recent excavations in Vac (Bartosiewicz 1995a), wild animal remains (excluding antler) comprised only 1.5 %. No aurochs was identified. Hunting was limited to small game for townsfolk, but aurochs was also apparently extinct in Hungary by the 13th century (Szalay 1917: 57). Although its bones were found in 9th-10th century Zalavar and 11th-13th century Csongrad (Bokonyi 1974: 355, 432), aurochs had become rare here already by the Roman period (Bartosiewicz 1996: [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]).

Vac lies 30 km north of Budapest on an alluvial terrace (105-115 m above the Adriatic Sea level) on the left bank of the Danube. In Roman times, no urban tradition developed in the Barbaricum east of the Danubian limes of Pannonia province. After an episcopate was established here during the 11th century, a settlement grew on a 6-9-m sand elevation along the Danube. After the 1241 Mongol incursion, this 'Hungarian Town' was distinguished from the 'German town', a newly added nothern extension inhabited by hospes from the German Empire (Knauz 1882: 768). Ottoman Turks occupied Vac in 1544; this may be the terminus ante quem date for the horn core, since the clerical staff and the bishop's lay employees then fled (Torma 1993: 406).

The horn core was found where the Hungarian and German towns overlap [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED], at the early medieval periphery of the settlement and its near-centre during the late Middle Ages.

The newly established episcopate received a royal donation of 'great wealth and estates' (Thuroczy 1980: 150). After 1241, when the city was granted royal privileges, urbanization north of the monastic centre accelerated. For centuries Vac profited from the transit traffic of massive livestock exports (Bartosiewicz 1995b).

By the late 15th century, glass and metal industries prospered. Mines in the hilly region of present-day Slovakia provided gold and silver as early as the 13th century. Although artisans were direct subordinates of the bishop operating on the level of serfs, goldsmiths who supplied the episcopal centre established the first recorded guild in the city in 1423 (Dunay 1912: 12). Medieval records from London (quoted by MacGregor 1989: 114) show - where demand existed - horn manufacturing was combined with metal-working including gold-smithery.

Horn manufacturing

Typically, horn cores represent the first stage in production, procurement of raw material, These bones, often with cutmarks, form typical concentrations of manufacturing debris also known in Hungary (e.g. Valter 1984: 1395; Bartosiewicz 1995a: 72). The specialized mass production of various horn blanks and pre-forms was a typical sedentary/urban craft activity (MacGregor 1989: 117). Large, intact sheaths were needed, however, to make individual, high-status treasures such as blast- and drinking-horns. The Vac horn was cut off above the base using a metal saw [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 3 OMITTED] that would not have been available before the Roman Period.

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A Horn Worth Blowing? A Stray Find of Aurochs from Hungary


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