Camels in Antiquity: The Hungarian Connection

Article excerpt


In their recently published article, Morales-Muniz et al. (1995) have summarized dromedary (Camelus dromedarius) finds from the Iberian peninsula within the general context of this animal's European history. The present review of sporadic camel finds from Hungary is intended as an addition from the continent's eastern frontier.

At no period during the Holocene were camels present in the natural fauna of the Carpathian Basin. Morales-Muniz et al. (1995) describe the domestication and dispersal of the 'enigmatic dromedary' in Africa and beyond, referring to the history of two-humped Bactrian camels (Camelus bactrianus) as 'more of an Asiatic event'. Indeed, camels closely related to this latter, Asiatic form had last occurred all over the Mediterranean during the Pleistocene (Zeuner 1963: 560; Gautier 1966: 1372). The problem is complex enough even if one deals only with dromedary which came from Africa to the Iberian peninsula. On the basis of their present geographical ranges, however, the importation of both dromedary and Bactrian camel may be hypothesized in the Carpathian Basin, located on a geopolitical fault-line in Eurasia.

Osteological evidence

Morales-Muniz et al. (1995: 369, [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]) list four Roman and two medieval Islamic sites where dromedary bones were found in Spain and Portugal. In spite of the 45-year-long tradition of systematic archaeozoological research in Hungary, only five sites yielded camel bones. The six sites in the Iberian Peninsula originate from an area of almost 600,000 sq. km, while Hungary is only as large as Portugal. The five occurrences reviewed in this paper are therefore distributed in an area that is only 16% of that of the Iberian Peninsula.

Similarly to the Iberian dromedary finds, camel remains in Hungary either come from Roman Imperial times or the fundamentally Muslim, Ottoman Turkish period which followed the late Middle Ages in Hungary (1526-1689). The location of sites is shown in FIGURE 1.

Period of the Roman Empire

1 Dunatijvaros - Intercisa:

Bokonyi (1989) reports on two large, 2nd-3rd-century camel calvaria from what looked like a sacrificial pit at this military site. Possibly associated mandible fragments were found in the vicinity of this feature; 'other bones' (sic) are also mentioned (Bokonyi 1989: 402). These camel imports were associated with the stationing of Syrian military units in the castrum of Intercisa. While the large size of these individuals would be indicative of Bactrian camel, Bokonyi concluded, they may just as well represent dromedaries due to their possible geographical origins. Indeed, this latter species was used by the Roman military both in North Africa and the Balkans (Benecke 1994: 328).

2 Tac - Fovenypuszta (?):

A mandible fragment from this Roman villa site was mentioned by Bokonyi (1974: 227); he, correctly, refrained from commenting further on this specimen that originated from a mixed layer. In this non-sieved assemblage 19,968 bone fragments from 38 animal species could be assigned to the Roman Imperial Period, while only 236 fragments from 10 animal species represented post-Roman occupations. In a purely stochastic sense, it is more likely that the rare camel bone belonged to the larger, relatively richer Roman Period component.

Turkish Period

3 Diosgyor - Castle: A maxilla fragment found in the 15th-17th-century layers in this castle, a stronghold on the northern frontier of the Ottoman Empire, was dated to the Turkish Period (Bokonyi 1974: 228).

4 Buda - Castle:

A humerus fragment from the Turkish layers of Buda, the right bank component of Hungary's modern capital on the Danube was described by Bokonyi (1969: 251). The author tentatively assigned this bone as well as the Diosgyor maxilla to dromedary.

5 Szekszard - Palank:

The largest assemblage of 21 camel bones (from at least four individuals) in Hungary was recovered recently from this timber fort dated to the late 16th and early 17th centuries (Bartosiewicz 1995). …