Animal Bones as Grave Goods in Iberian Burials

Human and Horse Burial from Bronze Age China

When we think of bones at cemetery or burial sites, we immediately think of the human remains. However, many prehistoric and early historic graves also contain the bones of animals. These faunal remains may be accidental as part of the backfill, or purposeful as either food or sacrifice. Animals may also be included in the grave as pets or loved ones who died at a similar time (remember the Natufian human and fox burial site). These faunal remains can be just as informative as grave goods for inferring social status and ritual funerary behavior, and therefore need to be considered as part of the grave context. A new study by Canadell, Subira and Ruiz (2012) examines the presence of faunal remains as part of the grave goods assemblage in order to better assess the social and cultural differentiation in Iberian communities.

Along the Mediterranean coast, from southern France to Andalucia, were a number of Iron Age communities. These Iberian groups showed ethnic and social diversity, attributed to their different levels of interaction with other groups from the Mediterranean. However, the necropolises in the region are highly standardized in the funerary ceremony and the treatment of the dead. The societies were hierarchical, with an emerging warrior-men aristocracy, although women and children could also obtain higher status through inheritance. While treatment of the body is the same, cremation and placement in a necropolis, the grave goods reveal this social structure.

The sample used for the study comes from the necropolis of El Poblado. Within the structure there are pits excavated to hold the human remains, placed directly in the ground, surrounded by stone slabs or within a cinerary urn. Animal offerings were arranged within the interior of the pit, and sometimes also in the urn. These faunal remains suggest a number of ritual actions took place with the funeral, however interpretation of the remains can be difficult as the ideological symbology is unknown. They can be deposited as food for the journey to the afterlife, remains from the funeral banquet or feasting, or may be symbolic and related to the individual’s identity. By examining the faunal remains in relationship to the deceased individual and the grave good assemblage, they propose they can understand the purpose and meaning.

The site dates from the early 4th c. BCE to the 2nd c. BCE, with approximately 200 years of use as a cremation necropolis. 200 graves have been uncovered, many of which contained grave goods. Of the 74 graves available for an anthropological study, 51 contained faunal remains. The first step of analysis involved identification of the commingled human and faunal bones, then assessment of age, sex, pathology, and post-mortem treatment for both. The human remains included 19 sub-adults, 14 adult females, 17 adult males, and 32 indeterminate adults. For the faunal remains they identified species as well. The sample included sheep, goat, cattle, pig, dog, horse, wild birds, and rabbits.

In Iberian sites animals are found in a number of contexts. Ovicaprids (sheep and goats) are found in high amounts at both funerary and domestic sites. They were a common form of domestic food. However, they are rarely depicted in iconography. Rabbits are often depicted as relating to the underworld due to their subterranean habitats. Wild birds are also widely depicted, with their flight relating to resurrection and journey. Horses were also symbolic, although their meaning is unknown. Grave goods may not have directly related to the identity of the deceased, but instead might have been an agent in transformation of the individual. Animal sacrifice and inclusion in the grave may be a way of transforming the deceased into an ancestor, easing their journey into the afterlife.

There were no age and sex-related patterns of deposition between the human and animal bones. However, there was a repeated occurrence of the left forelimb of ovicaprids within the burial- likely a symbolic token and more than just a provision of sustenance. They may have been placed with individuals associated with the animal in life, although the presence of wild animals suggests more symbolic relationships. Some of the faunal bones found were also subjected to fire, which likely means they were included in the cremation ritual rather than a cooked source of food.

This study is quite interesting, since we normally don’t look at the relationship between the presence of animal bones and the identity of the deceased in this detail. While the authors were unable to connect types of animals with specific identities, they were able to show that there was clear selection of parts of the animals and species, meaning that it was more than just provisioning the dead with food. Clear selection has a symbolic purpose, although we do not know what it is. If analyses like this continue at other sites, we may be able to draw more solid conclusions.

Works Cited
ResearchBlogging.orgCanadell, S., SubirÀ, M., & Ruiz, J. (2012). Ritual Patterns in the Deposits of Fauna Associated with Iberian Burials: The Necropolis of El Poblado During the Fourth to Second Centuries

(Archaeological Complex of Coimbra del Barranco Ancho, Murcia)
International Journal of Osteoarchaeology DOI: 10.1002/oa.2274

7 responses to “Animal Bones as Grave Goods in Iberian Burials

  1. *Good Afternoon, Katy: I wonder if you would give me your thoughts on the following information I ran across regarding super tall people from eons ago…possibly evolving with or from the Cro-magnon people. If these news articles and findings of very many year’s ago are true, where would I find information backing this up at the Smithsonian? Many articles criticize the Smithsonian for NOT publishing or verifying, or allowing access for verification of this information. Many criticize the Director Powell for downplaying the importance of these finds. I was just wondering what a knowledgeable person such as yourself thinks about this article. So much is written on the net that is believable but actually nonsense, so I don’t know what to believe. Can you enlighten me? Thank you

    Quote from item:
    Why distressing? Because no true Neanderthal remains have ever been recognized by any Federal authorities as originating
    on the North American continent, what to say of the Americas in general. Is there yet today a conflict between
    established theory and what has been physically discovered? Is the “ghost” of Powell yet haunting the halls of the

    So what is the policy of the Smithsonian? Does the institution intentionally withhold information? Is the fact of a race of
    giant warriors and chieftains threatening to the closed, internal doctrine of American archaeology? That there was a race of
    men and women possessing an unusually tall and strong physicality living over an extensive area North America has
    become a forgotten fact. End of quote.

    • It is very rare to find real coverups. Coverups in museums are usually due to mistakes in the past, rather than trying to hide real evidence. During the first discovery of Neanderthals there were numerous fakes found across the world. It is more likely that this passage and site is discussing a fake that was removed when the real identity was discovered. Look at Piltdown Man or Trenton Skulls.

  2. Katy, I’ve just stumbled upon your blog and I think I shall be scrolling further down, since you cover some very interesting subjects.
    On the subject of this specific post, I just wanted to let you know that in southern Iberia this association of faunal remains with burials is much older than the 4th century BCE. Indeed, several Late Neolithic/Early Copper Age sites in both Spain and Portugal include burials where partial skeletons of animals (ovi-caprids, dogs, foxes…) were deposited along with the human burials.

  3. Have you made a mistake in your article reference? The article title you give: Ritual Patterns in the Deposits of Fauna Associated with Iberian Burials: The Necropolis of El Poblado During the Fourth to Second Centuries BC (Archaeological Complex of Coimbra del Barranco Ancho, Murcia), from IJO is listed with the following authors:

    Do you have a reference for the photo of the Chinese burial?

    best regards

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