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Steve Rowland during excavation of the horse burials
Horse burials after complete excavation
In December 2003 a pit (F316) containing the articulated remains of several horses was excavated in the watching brief area. The skeletal remains recovered from the pit have since been cleaned, recorded and assessed by zooarchaeologist, Steve Rowland Msc. A more detailed study of the animal bones has revealed that there were in fact four, not three horses buried in the pit. The fourth horse was identified from a sacrum, a femur and several vertebrae recovered from the disturbed upper fill of the feature. Of the four animals only the lower two had survived plough damage intact.
The two lower horses (C1732 and C1733) were placed on their right side, back to back in the base of the pit, each with its head at the others tail. A detailed study of the skeleton and teeth suggests that both animals were male and approximately seven years old. From bone measurements it has been possible to calculate their original height. The southern horse (C1733) would originally have stood at a height of 1.49m at its withers (top of shoulder blade), the northern horse was slightly smaller at 1.45m. As can be seen, neither animal was very large, being the equivalent size of a small pony.
Evidence for mild arthritis was visible in the spines and ribs of both horses suggesting that the animals had lead a working life. The lower hind leg of the C1732 had also partially fused together in a condition known as a spavin together indicating that for a period at least, this horse had been lame.
Comparison between a normal lower hind leg (top) and that from horse burial c1732 showing spavin condition
The disarticulated remains of the two other horses proved too fragmentary to provide a detailed picture of the animals. From their teeth they appeared to be similar in age to the two articulated horses and from the size of their bones both appeared to be significantly smaller. It is tempting to suggest that due their smaller size and lack of canines the horses buried in the upper part of the pit were both female.
From the two horses in the upper fill of the pit, more bones from the left side of the body have been recovered than those of the right. This could indicate that these animals were originally buried on their left sides leaving their right side exposed to damage and disturbance by modern ploughing.
It is difficult to see the careful placement of four horses into pit F316 as anything other than ritual in nature, despite the fact that one horse was likely to have been lame.
While no dating evidence was recovered during the excavation, the depth and nature of F316 does suggest an ancient date. In order to establish the origin of the pit with certainty, the right femur of horse C1732 has since been sent to the Scottish University Research and Reactor Centre in Glasgow for radio carbon dating. The results are expected to be available by the end of February this year.
It is known that horses played an important role in Iron Age ritual, art and iconography. While independently of great importance, horses have a particular association with the goddess Epona, a deity revered within both domestic and martial spheres, representing protection, fertility and even death. On a bronze from Wiltshire she is depicted feeding a male and female horse while on a French relief from Armançon she accompanies the triple mothers on a two horse-cart (Green 1986).
Burials of complete or bits of horses in Iron Age ritual deposits are common, and extend into the Roman period. At South Cadbury a horse and cattle skull were found right way up in a feature associated with an Iron Age shrine, and similar features of Roman date include a pit from Newstead containing horse, cattle and human skulls, complete horses buried beneath the shrine of a temple at Bourton Grounds, Buckinghamshire (Green 1986) and a large pit containing both single horse and cattle skulls and a pair of dog mandibles was discovered at Site 25 on the Silk Willoughby to Staythorpe gas pipeline (FAS_SSP03). At Blewburton Hill, Berkshire, the remains of 10 horses were found interred in pits as part of a ritual act associated with the remodelling and reoccupation of the hillfort in the Iron Age.
The high proportion of horse bones recovered from various phases of excavation at Nosterfield, particularly teeth (although this could relate to the greater survivability of these elements in inclement preservation conditions), may again relate to the importance of horse deposition within a ritual landscape.