An Unusual Late Antique Funerary Deposit with Equid Remains (Usseau, France)

By Gleize, Y.; Scuiller, C. et al. | Antiquity, September 2010 | Go to article overview

An Unusual Late Antique Funerary Deposit with Equid Remains (Usseau, France)


Gleize, Y., Scuiller, C., Armand, D., Antiquity


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Introduction

The presence of faunal remains in funerary contexts is frequent during the Iron Age and Roman period in western Europe (Lepetz 1993; Meniel 2001, 2008). Offerings, sacrifices and funerary meals are also documented in textual and iconographic sources (Fevrier 1977; Lepetz & Van Adringa 2004; Scheid 2005). In north-western Europe, the funerary deposition of certain animals (horse, dog, cattle, pig, sheep/goat) is common in the early Middle Ages, especially in Anglo-Saxon burials and particularly in cremations (McKinley 1994; Carver 2005: 275-82; Williams 2006). In Gaul, during Late Antiquity, the deposits are characterised by the presence of cockerill and, in lesser proportion, pig (Lepetz & Van Adringa 2004). It seems that funeral deposits of horses end after the High Empire (Arbogast et al. 2002; Bel 2002; Moliner 2003; Pluton-Kliesch et al. 2008). Indeed in the early Middle Ages, while horse burial is common in the Rhineland (Muller-Wille 1970-71, 1997; Oexle 1984; Mittermeier 1986; Brulet 1991; Le Bec 2002; Carver 2005; Dierkens et al. 2008), other kinds of faunal remains seem to be almost absent from graves (Young 1977; Treffort 1994). This absence of animal deposits from early medieval burials in Gaul had been linked to ecclesiastic interdictions against funerary banquets and sacrifices, although this explanation is now being questioned (Young 1977; Treffort 1994; Gleize 2006a).

Reported here is an apparently exceptional variation on the rite of horse burial, both in its chronology and location and in the manner of deposition. Pieces of an equid were found in close association with the bones of two humans in a pit in a cemetery of the Late Antique period in west-central France. The deposit offers an opportunity to discuss the historical meaning and context of such rituals outside questions of ethnic or religious norms. Our results stress the importance of integrated recording and a linked analysis for both human and animal remains in graves. They lead to more general propositions about faunal deposits in funerary contexts in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages.

The cemetery

A large part of an early medieval cemetery was excavated in 2001 at Fief-Dampierre (Usseau, Deux-Sevres, France) (Scuiller et al. 2001). The funerary area overlies Roman occupation (second half of the first to beginning of the second century AD) near a road and a ditch. During the archaeological excavation, 233 funerary structures were identified (129 pit graves, 19 stone-lined tombs and 85 sarcophagi). The distribution of graves in the part of the cemetery excavated (approximately 0.7ha) is not uniform: groups of burials are separated by empty spaces. All graves are oriented east-west and the bodies are buried supine with the head to the west (Figure 1). Grave goods were rare, a feature of cemeteries in the north of Poitou-Charentes. However, the type of sarcophagus is characteristic of the fifth to seventh centuries AD and dates obtained from grave goods, grave types and from AMS dates on bone samples (1) establish the overall chronology of the use of the cemetery as lying between the third/fourth and the tenth centuries AD.

A peculiar pit

Pit $65 was located in the centre of the excavated cemetery; it resembled a grave in form and was aligned with other graves (Figure 1). The pit contained selected human remains with parts of an equid superimposed on top of them (Figure 2). The human bones (two calvariae and long bones) belong to two adults, one gracile and one robust. In the absence of hip bones, secondary sexual diagnosis (Murail et al. 1999) identified these as, respectively, a female and a male (Gleize 2006b). The lack of anatomical connections between the bones, the selection of the remains (no small bones) and their position testify to a secondary deposit of dry bones (Duday et al. 1990; Duday 2006, 2009). We can posit a 'primary burial' in which these bodies were first laid out. …

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An Unusual Late Antique Funerary Deposit with Equid Remains (Usseau, France)
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