A Barrow Full of Cattle Skulls

Article excerpt


Most of the animal bones found on archaeological sites are distributed rather haphazardly, and probably represent scattered food remains. The frequencies of different parts of the skeleton mainly reflect differences in rates of post-mortem destruction: dense bones, especially teeth, are more likely to withstand destruction, and tend to be more common, while others such as vertebrae, proximal humeri and proximal tibiae are less dense, less likely to be preserved and generally found in smaller numbers (Brain 1967).

Sometimes, however, groups of animal bones derive from particular parts of the skeleton only -- often in large numbers and from particular kinds of context -- and these can often reasonably be interpreted as butchery or industrial waste. For example, a concentration of cattle horn cores from Cutler Street in the City of London is presumed to come from a homer's workshop (Armitage 1978), and an unusually large number of sheep foot bones, from Walmgate in York, may represent waste from a tannery (O'Connor 1984).

Other unusual bone groups are less easily explained in this way, and may sometimes be interpreted as reflecting ritual practices: a collection of right hind-limb bones of sheep for instance, from the 6th-century BC temple of Apollo in Cyprus (Davis in press), or the so-called 'hide and hooves' burials, reported at several Neolithic and Beaker barrows in England where the feet and head of a cow were found in association with the burial (Piggott 1962; Grigson 1984).

This article describes another unusual assemblage of animal bones, from a Beaker period round barrow in central England. It consists of the remains of at least 185 skulls and a smaller number of mandibles, shoulder blades and pelves of cattle. Bones of other parts of the skeleton and other species are conspicuously rare or absent. There can be little doubt that this assemblage is the result of some kind of ritual associated with the death of the man buried in the barrow, adding to the evidence suggesting that cattle played an important symbolic role in British Neolithic and Bronze Age society.

The site

Barrow 1 at Irthlingborough was one of a group of barrows and other monuments on the floodplain of the Nene, 2 km west of the modern village of Stanwick in Northamptonshire (NGR SP 96237126; FIGURE 1). It was excavated in 1986 under the direction of Claire Halpin of English Heritage's Central Excavation Unit (Halpin 1987a; 1987b) as part of the Raunds Area Project (Foard & Pearson 1985; Dix 1987).

The barrow had been substantially eroded and truncated by ploughing: less than 0.3 m of the mound was preserved (Halpin 1987b). Three concentric ring ditches, 15, 24, and 32 m in diameter, are thought to have been dug during the construction of the mound and two successive enlargements.

Despite the truncation of the barrow mound, a substantial deposit of animal bones was found overlying and mixed with a deposit of limestone blocks, both slumping into the large central grave pit (2.65 x 2.10 m and c. 0.85 m deep). This stone and bone deposit is thought to represent a cairn of stones and bones which slumped after the decay and collapse of a structure of timber beams which once formed a roof to the burial pit.

The burial pit contained the partly disarticulated skeleton of an adult man (Henderson 1988). Accompanying it were numerous associated grave goods, placed at the feet of the burial: these comprised three bone spatulae, a long-necked beaker, a flint dagger and 12 other flints (some retouched as knives and scrapers), five conical jet buttons with V-perforations, an archer's stone wrist-guard, two 'sponge-finger' stones, an amber ring and a boar's tusk (Halpin 1987a; 1987b). These goods date the burial to the Beaker period and are of an unusually fine quality, indicating that the buried man was of high status (Humble 1990).

The bone deposit, which was up to 0.8 m thick and covered an area of 10-15 sq. …