Comments on the Interpretation of the So-Called Cattle Burials of Neolithic Central Europe

By Pollex, Axel | Antiquity, September 1999 | Go to article overview
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Comments on the Interpretation of the So-Called Cattle Burials of Neolithic Central Europe


Pollex, Axel, Antiquity


Cattle burials in Neolithic Europe

The cattle burials of Neolithic Europe offer an interesting means of access to early belief systems. Burials of up to 10 animals have been reported, either near or within human graves, or unconnected with humans but associated with other domestic animals. The earliest contexts (c. 3500 BC) are the Salzmunde complex and the Altmarkische Tiefstichkeramik in central Germany and the Funnel Beakers in Poland. The latest burials relate to the Corded Ware and the 'Schonfeld' complexes although most of the finds belong to the Globular Amphorae horizon. The distribution of cattle burials extends from central Germany in the west to Hungary in the south and the Ukraine in the east [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. Interestingly, the appearance of cattle depositions coincides with the first evidence of wagons in Europe (Maran 1998).

The term 'cattle burial' is misleading, since differentiation should be made between cattle burial, sacrifice and grave goods. I propose that a more neutral term 'cattle deposition' seems to be more appropriate, since an intentional burial of a slaughtered animal is different from one that died naturally (Ebert 1929: 301).

The interpretation of cattle burial requires the following: a A cattle deposition without connection to a human burial

b A single animal in the pit

The association of cattle depositions in a human grave implies a different relationship of animal sacrifice and grave offering, rather than as a burial in its own right. Artefacts offer additional potential to interpret possible sacrificial contexts, for example double-pointed bone awls. In Parchatka one awl was found between the ribs of a cow (Behrens 1964: 110-11); in Zlota another was located between the ribs of a calf and in Krasnoe Selo, Ukraine, two bone tools were embedded in the chest of a bull (Tschernjaskij 1972). These finds of bone awls are interpreted as killing instruments (Gabalowna 1958: 53-4; Behrens 1964: 113; Hensel 1974: 60; Muller-Karpe 1974: 735; Krzak 1977: 61). However, such tools have been found in or close to the animals in or near human graves as well as without burial association.

Three possible, if less significant factors may assist in distinguishing between the criteria of burial, grave and sacrifice (TABLE 1):

1 Traces of fire

2 Grave goods dedicated to animals

3 Significant age or treatment of the animals

The lack of distinguishing criteria in the cattle depositions makes the functional interpretation between grave gift or sacrifice difficult. A cattle deposition without an awl, for example could be seen as equivalent to a human burial, so we need to establish the cause of the animal's death. In any case an interpretation as a sacrifice is always possible.

Explanations- for cattle burials

Some ethnographic views promote the idea that sacrifice was to maintain the status quo. The most popular theory explains sacrifice as the offer of life to divine powers, thereby achieving the original order. Alternatively, since deities would have no need of life, it is the divine power itself that is sacrificed. The deity's death is seen as essential in closing the circle of death and rebirth, and through killing it, humans thus imitate the deity and are nourished by its immortality (Streck 1987: 157-60; Hirschberg 1988: 348-9).

Three different approaches to the interpretation of cattle-depositions can be pursued. The first is the use of analogy, suggested by the ideas of Ludwig Giesebrecht (1847) and Georg Wilke (Ebert 1929), who used Ancient Egyptian written [TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE 1 OMITTED] evidence to explain the animal graves of northern Europe. Since the 1950s other approaches have gained more importance, and include the second approach, the economic, and the third, social interpretations. Otto Friedrich Gandert (1953) suggested that the existence of cattle-depositions shows the importance of cattle both in an economic and spiritual sense.

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