The Aurochs, Nature Worship and Exploitation in Eastern Gaul

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Aurochs horn cores at a thermal spring

The spa at Bourbonne-les-Bains (Haute-Marne, France) has been used since its foundation around 11/7 BC to the present day, and is one of the most intensively visited in northern Gaul and France. Its 66[degrees]C main spring has yielded the largest votive deposit of Roman coins (over 4500 items) of any spring in northern Gaul or Germany; the implications of this find for the history of the area have already been reported (Sauer 1999a, b, 2005). In the immediate vicinity of this spring was an exceptional collection of finds of a different nature: horn-cores of the now extinct aurochs. The character and meaning of this assemblage form the subject of this paper.

Very large cattle horn cores, almost certainly deriving from the aurochs, were first discovered at Bourbonne-les-Bains in 1783. They were found within a 7m radius east of the catchment installation of the hot spring in vaulted rooms that also contained votive inscriptions dedicated to the spring deities (De Varaigne 1783: 475). In 1859, Dugas de Beaulieu (1862: 60) reported on this find in a lecture to the Societe Imperial des Antiquaires de France, and noted that several cores with a circumference at the base of up to 0.34m (close to our own measurements) were in the Bourbonne-les-Bains town hall. Eighteen further cores were found in 1875 within the Roman bath-house approximately 20-40m to the west of the spring (Figure 1; Causard 1878: 38; Renard 1877: 333). Eighteen horn cores and the tip of another are currently housed in the Bourbonne-les-Bains museum. It may be significant, or merely coincidence, that their number, excluding the small fragment, exactly matches the number recorded from the 1875 interventions. However, the extant collection may include some of those found in 1783. Despite uncertainty about the precise time and location of their discovery, there can be no doubt that they derive from the vicinity of the spring as they are heavily impregnated with calcium carbonate; this was also noted in the early sources (Daubree 1875:472). There are no postcranial cattle bones in the Bourbonne collection, nor were any such finds noted at the time of excavation.


Aurochs (Bos primigenius Bojanus) or wild cattle (Figure 2) are an ancestor of European domestic cattle (Bos taurus Linne), and were ultimately replaced by the smaller domestic form. Aurochs bones are quite frequently recorded as a component of European archaeological assemblages up until the Bronze Age, but in common with the bones of other wild species, they then become increasingly infrequent finds. Although not extinct in heavily forested areas of temperate continental Europe until the early seventeenth century (Guintard 1999:7-8 with fig. 1), their remains are rare in Roman contexts. Thus despite our confidence that the horn cores had been recovered from the spa, it was important to verify both their identification to species and their date. We were fortunate to receive a grant from NERC to cover ten [C.sup.14] analyses; samples for analysis were taken and a physical examination made during a visit to the Bourbonne-les-Bains museum in 2001.


Description of the assemblage

The collection housed in the museum today comprises twelve right and seven left cores. Although most of the cores had suffered some damage, probably post-excavation, (Figure 3), they were all in fairly good condition. They varied in colour from off-white to light brown, perhaps reflecting the extent of their exposure to the thermal waters. It was possible to measure the maximum and minimum basal diameters and the basal circumferences of 14 of the cores (see yon den Driesch 1976). Accurate measurement of the maximum length of the core along the outer curvature was only possible for one core, but the length of a further two could be estimated to an accuracy of [+ or -] 5mm. For 12 other cores an estimation of approximate length was made on the basis of close comparison of the surviving fragments with other more complete cores in the collection. …