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A barrow full of cattle skulls.


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. m, contained abundant cattle teeth and bone fragments. Loss from ploughing and the construction of an anthrax-pit (the 'disturbed' area in FIGURE 2) means that the original deposit may have been somewhat larger. Most of the teeth are from maxillae (upper jaws). They and the other bones were scattered at random, but their distributions form a single cluster over and around the grave. Mr R. Jones of the Ancient Monuments Laboratory supervised the on-site recording and lifting of the bone deposit.

The animal bones

The methods used for analysis are detailed in Davis (1989) which includes the raw data.

Most of the bones are poorly preserved; none show any sign of burning. The teeth, in contrast, are generally in excellent condition; many were found in groups which were clearly from the same tooth-row (the bone having disappeared), while others were found as single teeth.

The majority (over 98%; TABLE 1) of the bones and teeth are from cattle. Remains of other species such as horse, pig and sheep/goat are few in number and are probably accidental introductions into the assemblage. There is little doubt that the majority of the teeth belonged to domestic cattle -- they differ little from teeth of modern domestic cattle. There are five upper teeth, all plausibly from a single individual, which are considerably larger. Their circumferences show them to be well beyond the range of variation of the rest of the Irthlingborough cattle teeth. These five large teeth are identified as aurochs, known to have been present in Britain at least until the Late Bronze Age:

Clutton-Brock & Burleigh (1983) dated aurochs remains from Somerset to c. 1300 BC. A fragment of horn core is also identified as aurochs on the basis of its large size, and two large scapulae may also be aurochs.
TABLE 1. Numbers of bones and teeth found at Irthlingborough
 numbers percentage
cattle 2471 98%
aurochs 6 |is less than~1%
horse 8 |is less than~1%
pig 14 1%
sheep/goat 10 |is less than~1%
dog 2 |is less than~1%
total 2511


Two domestic cattle and two aurochs upper second molars have been dated by the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit (Hedges et al. 1990). A sample of bone from the human skeleton was dated by the Radiocarbon Dating Research Unit at Queen's University, Belfast. The results are in TABLE 2. While the spread of the dates is slightly wider than might be expected for a single event, in general terms these datesconfirm the Beaker period age of the burial, the cattle and the aurochs bones.


The parts of the skeleton represented and evidence of defleshing

It is unusual enough to find large archaeological animal bone assemblages consisting almost entirely of a single species. An even stranger feature of this assemblage is the relative frequency of different parts of the skeleton. While the majority of the animal remains derive from 185 cattle skulls (this count is based on the numbers of upper molars), there are far smaller numbers of cattle mandibles, scapulae and pelves (no more than 38, 33 and 15 animals need be represented respectively), and only a few fragments of limb-bones, carpals, tarsals and phalanges. This kind of anatomical composition -- many skulls, fewer mandibles/girdles, almost no longbones -- is highly unusual. Preservational factors can be ruled out as an explanation. There were, for instance, only 3 distal humeri (one of the heaviest and strongest parts of the skeleton) as compared with 144 occipital condyles (a more fragile part at the back of the skull).

We suggest that the deposit may have originally been made up of the skulls, mandibles, scapulae and pelves of at least some 40 cattle (probably including one aurochs) together with the skulls of at least a further approximately 145 cattle, without other parts of the skeleton.

Right and left mandibular teeth, scapulae and pelves were found in similar numbers, thus showing no evidence of preference for one side of the body. Despite the poor state of preservation of the bones, fine cut marks, probably made by a sharp instrument, could be observed on several scapulae and basioccipitals. The marks on the scapulae were probably made during defleshing.
TABLE 3. Minimum numbers of different parts of the cattle
skeletons represented at Irthlingborough.
 minimum numbers
 left right
skull 184
mandible 31 38
atlas 7
axis 1
scapula 32 33
humerus 2 1
radius 1 0
metacarpal 0 1
pelvis 15 12
femur 1 0
tibia 1 0
astragalus 0 0
calcaneum 0 0
metatarsal 1 0
phalanges 1

Closer inspection of the numbers of different cattle teeth reveals an interesting pattern of loss, and may provide a clue as to the state in which skulls were originally incorporated into the barrow. While a total of 1100 upper molars and 200 lower molars was found (from a minimum of 185 cattle skulls and the mandibles of at least 38 cattle), the number of premolars decreases towards the front of the tooth row in both upper and lower jaws. Only one incisor was found where there would originally have been 272.

Incisors and premolars are smaller teeth, falling out of the jaw after death more readily than the molars, whose spreading roots anchor them more firmly in their sockets. For this reason, incisors and premolars are more vulnerable to loss during excavation. But this explanation TABULAR DATA OMITTED does not account for their scarcity at Irthlingborough: the bone deposit was excavated slowly and with great care, and groups of teeth were lifted and bagged with the surrounding earth which was sieved when the teeth were cleaned. Though not all the earth was sieved in this way, and some of these smaller teeth may have been lost during excavation, losses of the order indicated in TABLE 4 require some other explanation. It seems most probable that the loss of incisors and premolars occurred during a delay between slaughter and final incorporation of skulls/mandibles into the barrow. A delay of a month or more might have been sufficient to allow flesh to rot and teeth to drop. We suggest, then, that the skulls and bones were placed on the cairn some time after the animals were killed.

Age at death

Cattle, like most herbivorous mammals, have evolved high-crowned teeth to cope with the gradual wearing away caused by the abrasive nature of the food. As tooth wear proceeds, the height of the remaining crown decreases and the pattern of enamel folds visible on the biting surface changes. Both of these features may be used to estimate the approximate age at death of the animals by measuring the crown height (Ducos 1968) and by assigning a tooth to a particular 'wear stage' (FIGURE 5, after Payne (1987)). Analysis of these two variables in the Irthlingborough upper molars indicates that almost all the cattle slaughtered were sub-adults and young adults, aged between 1 and 6 years old, with only one calf and no very old individuals among them. They would have been prime beef animals.


The cut marks on the scapulae were most probably made during defleshing, and most of the bones from the parts of the skeleton that would have provided most of the best meat are missing. In other words, we are not dealing here with any sacrifice of joints of meat 'on the bone', either to provide the soul with nourishment on its journey into the next world or as a gift to the gods; instead, it appears that the skulls and bones were placed on the cairn after the meat had been removed.

The simplest interpretation would be to suggest that all the 185 cattle were killed and TABULAR DATA OMITTED eaten at the site. The quantity of meat that this would have involved is formidable, conjuring up images of large-scale feasting on the banks of the Nene. The 185 cattle would have provided at least 40 tons of meat which, on a ration of 1 kg per person per day, would feed 40,000 people for a day, or 500 people for two-and-a-half months; the total amount would have been even greater if ploughing and disturbance have destroyed substantial amounts of bone.

This is much more meat than would have been needed simply to feed the people who were building the barrow. Startin & Bradley (1981) have made estimates of the labour requirements for several well-known English prehistoric earthworks: the long barrow at Fussell's Lodge, for instance, would have required 690 man-days; the megalithic long barrow at West Kennet required about 1570 man-days, and Durrington Walls in Wiltshire, which covers 30 acres, might have required between 50,000 and 90,000 man-days to construct. For the far smaller barrow at Irthlingborough, 185 cattle would be vastly more than necessary just to feed the builders during its construction.

Further evidence bears on the length of time that the defleshed skulls lay exposed to weathering before being buried. While the bone is poorly preserved, most of the teeth are in good condition and show little sign of the cracking and shattering damage that results from exposure to frost and temperature change over a matter of years. Those teeth that are poorly preserved have been damaged by dentine loss, probably through leaching within the soil, and the enamel is still in fairly good condition; cracks and breaks are few and along the long axis of the tooth. This suggests that the skulls could not have been exposed to the elements for very long -- no more than a few years at most -- and so were presumably buried fairly rapidly.

Taken together with the evidence provided by the missing premolars and incisors, there is still a wide range of possible series of events that might have produced the bone deposit. One possible scenario would involve the killing of the animals and large-scale consumption of meat in the course of ceremonies taking place over a relatively short period at or near the barrow; the skulls and some of the bones would have been stacked on one side for a few weeks or months during which the missing teeth were lost, and then piled on the stone cairn and buried.

Another possibility is that only 40 or so of the cattle were killed and consumed in this way at the site, and that the remainder of the skulls were from animals that were killed and eaten elsewhere, and brought to the site and piled on the cairn as tokens. This raises the further possibility that these other skulls might have been from animals killed and eaten in the past, not necessarily in connection with this burial. This might provide an explanation, if one is needed, for the spread of the 14C dates; the aurochs skull in particular might have been a valued antique.

Archaeological parallels

The Irthlingborough assemblage is almost unique. We are aware of only one report of what may have been a comparable assemblage in the British archaeological literature (it is unfortunate that many prehistoric barrows were 'opened' in the 18th and 19th centuries when, all too often, little attention was paid to animal remains.)

The one assemblage reported that appears to have been comparable in scale to Irthlingborough (we are grateful to Caroline Grigson for drawing our attention to it) comes from Harrow Hill -- an Iron Age hill fort in west Sussex excavated in 1936 by Holleyman (1937: 250):

Although there was a paucity of occupation material, animal bone was abundant and, with few exceptions, represented only the heads of what Dr. Wilfrid Jackson has identified as a species of Early Iron Age ox. Hardly a limb-bone was found, yet the skulls, represented principally by mandibles and teeth, must number between fifty and one hundred from our small cuttings alone. This would mean, at a very conservative estimate, that the whole earthwork must contain remains of well over a thousand heads. Dr. Jackson knows of no analogous example, and at present we can do no more than record the strange fact.

Here in Sussex, then, is another example of a cattle head or skull accumulation perhaps similar to Irthlingborough. But Jackson never published a report on these ox skulls (Holleyman pers. comm.), and its date cannot be regarded as certain.

Further evidence for special treatment of cattle skulls comes from Neolithic and Beaker period 'hide and hooves' burials, cited above (Piggott 1962; Grigson 1984). Several 19th-century antiquaries report in their writings that cattle skulls were sometimes found with the human remains uncovered in barrows. For example, Hoare (1812: 87-8) described 14 human skulls and several human bodies associated with the heads and horns of seven or more oxen at Bowls barrow, near Heytesbury in Wiltshire. Merewether (1851: 41), who opened a barrow near Silbury, also in Wiltshire, described an adult human skeleton found at a depth of 10 feet. Five feet above were the 'heads of two oxen laid side by side and in very perfect condition. . . . in each the centre of the forehead had been fractured in a circular hole'. Bateman's (1861: 128-30) account of barrows 'opened by Mr. Carrington in 1849' is also worth noting. Bateman reported the careful interment of part of the head of an ox, an occurrence which he had discovered on several earlier occasions. He also mentions the presence of the upper jaw of an ox which was '. . . the fifth instance, of the intentional burial of the whole or part of the head of the ox', and which, according to Bateman, 'goes far to prove the existence of some peculiar superstition or rite, of which no notice has reached modern times'. These reports, as well as the assemblage we describe here, corroborate Grant's (1991) suggestion that in Neolithic and Bronze Age Britain cattle had a symbolic importance which was as great as, or even greater than, their economic importance.

Large numbers of animal skeletons and parts of skeletons were found round the Mausoleum at Halikarnassos in southwestern Turkey (Hojlund 1981). But here, as also suggested by accounts of hekatombs in Classical texts, the emphasis is on the offering of meat: unlike Irthlingborough, whole carcasses were found in articulation, together with butchered quarters and choice joints, and several kinds of animals are included. We could find no reported examples from classical times in which only skulls of a single species were placed in or over a tomb.

Ethnographic parallels

Our search of the archaeological and classical literature revealed little that could shed light on the meaning of Irthlingborough. But modern ethnographic accounts of death and mortuary rites provide more promising material, and may help us to understand the Irthlingborough faunal assemblage.

In parts of Madagascar, elaborate funeral rites still take place involving large numbers of cattle. Many Malagasy people pay great reverence to their ancestors -- the dead and the living form a single society in constant contact. Typically, the body of the deceased is first laid in a temporary burial place. A period of waiting ensues before a second burial can take place. An important distinction is made between, on the one hand, a putrefying corpse in which the bones are still 'wet' and, on the other hand, the end product of putrefaction, i.e. the dry bones. This period may vary from several months to as much as 10 years -- on average two years. Reburial cannot take place until the corpse has completely decomposed and only the dry bones remain. An evil power, linked with the smells of putrefaction, is thought to reside in the corpse, and as desiccation of the bones progresses, so the deceased is freed from the evil. The soul of the deceased is then deemed worthy of admittance to the company of its ancestors, but in the intermediate period it wanders incessantly waiting for the feast which will put an end to its restlessness (Hertz 1907). The feast, of which cattle are an important ingredient, accompanies the ceremony of Famadihana, when the bones of the deceased are examined, re-wrapped in a special shroud and reburied.

While not necessarily the main source of sustenanc, cattle reflect status and wealth in Madagascar, and play an important role in the burial and re-burial of the dead (see e.g. Mack 1986). The second burial may last several days, or even a whole month, and may be accompanied by elaborate preparations and very great expense, even reducing the family of the deceased to poverty. Many cattle are sacrificed and eaten in banquets that often develop into huge orgies. In parts of southern Madagascar, for example among the Antandroy, Famadihana is not practised, so the dried human bones cannot be seen. Instead cattle skulls -- perhaps symbolising the desiccation of the human skeleton -- are placed over the tomb or on some high place nearby such as up a tree or on a cenotaph. These are the skulls of cattle sacrificed during the funeral, whose number reflects the status of the deceased. The skull serves as an emblem of the virility and power whose increase is implied in the act of sacrifice (Mack pers. comm.).

Drawing parallels between modern Madagascar and prehistoric Britain must be treated with great caution. It is, however, interesting to note that in both cases the funerary ritual concentrates on a single species while the everyday diet is more varied: in Madagascar, goats, pigs and birds are also eaten as well as beef (Bloch pers. comm.), while sheep, pig and deer are commonly found in prehistoric animal bone assemblages in Britain as well as cattle. The Irthlingborough cattle bone assemblage can plausibly be seen as a symbol of the power and status of the buried man, and adds weight to earlier suggestions (Piggott 1962; Grigson 1984; Grant 1991) that in prehistoric Britain, as in Madagascar today, cattle had important symbolic as well as economic value.

Acknowledgements. In studying this strange faunal assemblage from Irthlingborough, we have benefitted greatly from the help of numerous people. In particular, we are most grateful to Roger Jones of the Ancient Monuments Laboratory, and Claire Halpin, Jon Humble and Nicholas Balaam of the Central Excavation Unit. They kindly produced the spatial plots of finds at Irthlingborough and gave us much advice. Our thanks, too, to Andrew David, Jon Humble, John Kahn, Terry O'Connor, Mike Parker-Pearson, Rosemary Payne, and Mark Robinson for their comments on earlier versions of this paper. Caroline Grigson of the Odontological Museum, Royal College of Surgeons, and Tim Darvill of Bournemouth University drew our attention to several useful references in the literature. John Mack and Nigel Barley of the Museum of Mankind introduced us to some of the customs practised today by people in Africa and Madagascar. We have had useful advice concerning burial practices in the Classical world from Robert Cook of Cambridge, Michael Jameson of Stanford University, California, and Crawford Greenewalt of the University of California at Berkeley; and advice concerning radiocarbon dates from David Haddon-Reece and David Jordan.


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Title Annotation:cattle burial mound in Northamptonshire, England
Author:Davis, Simon; Payne, Sebastian
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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