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