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									                                                                                                       SKULLS ON SHOW
                                                                                                                               Dr Ellen Hambleton
                                                                                                                  School of Conservation Sciences
                                                                                                                  1) Introduction
                                                                                                                  Traditionally animal bone studies in archaeology have focussed on the economic
                                                                                                                  role of animals, how they were hunted or farmed, and their contribution to
                                                                                                                  peoples’ diet. However, animal remains can also provide insights into the ritual
                                                                                                                  and symbolic behaviour of past societies. Evidence for ritual or symbolic
                                                                                                                  treatment of animal remains has been recovered from many Iron Age
                                                                                                                  settlements in southern Britain.

                                                                                                                                                   Figure 1. Special deposit of
                                                                                                                                                   horse skull and mandible at
Figure 2. View of Battlesbury Iron Age Hillfort (800-200 BC) on Salisbury Plain (Source: Defence Estates)                                          base of pit at Danebury Iron
                                                                                                                                                   Age Hillfort (Source: Cunliffe

2) ‘Special Deposits’
This evidence usually takes the form of ‘special deposits’, groups
of carefully selected objects deliberately placed within pits or
ditches, which often include animal skulls (Figure 1), skeletons or
articulated limbs. Identification of special deposits and
interpretations of the ritual activities they may represent, tend to
concentrate on the significance of their location (in the ground) and
their composition (the types of objects present). Little or no
consideration has been given to the question of whether the
objects themselves had a history of unusual treatment and a
special significance of their own even before they were buried.
Was it the objects themselves rather than their location and
structured burial that held special significance for Iron Age                                                                                                                                                                 Figure 4. Extensive knife cuts on
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   horse skull.
communities? Research on the animal remains from the site of
Battlesbury Bowl, Hampshire (Figure 2) provided an opportunity to
investigate this question (Hambleton & Maltby unpub.).

3) Animal Bone Evidence
One of the Iron Age ditches at Battlesbury Bowl contained a group                                                       Figure 3. Front and rear views of two well preserved cattle skulls with back                           Figure 5. Gnawed base of cattle
of seven cattle and three horse skulls which the excavators had                                                         of skull removed.                                                                                                          horncore.

already identified as being unusual and potentially ‘special’. This                                                      •Teeth - the teeth in the skulls are missing which indicates that they were kept
conclusion was drawn because they were a group of similar                                                                above ground for enough time for these to drop out prior to burial.
objects buried in the same place. However, detailed examination
by zooarchaeologists at Bournemouth University indicated that the                                                        •Condition - the lack of weathering and severe dog gnawing indicates that
thing that was most important about these bones was actually their                                                       these skulls were kept off the ground and possibly protected from both
                                                                                                                         scavengers and the elements prior to burial (Figure 3).
treatment before they entered the ground.
                                                                                                                         •Skinning/cleaning - fine knife cuts observed on the skulls indicate that they
                                                                                                                         had been skinned, and in some cases knife marks were excessive indicating
                                                                                                                         careful cleaning of the skull (Figure 4).
                                                                                                                         •Horns – in some cases gnawing is restricted to the base of the horn core
                                                                                                                         where it joins the skull, indicating that the outer horn casing had been left on the
                                                                                                                         skull (Figure 5).
                                                                                                                         •Modification - the backs of the skulls had been removed, this may have helped
                                                                                                                         the skull to lay flat against a vertical surface as if mounted on a wall or post
                                                                                                                         (Figure 3).

                                                                                                                        4) Conclusions
                                                                                                                        It is clear from this research that this group of skulls from Battlesbury Bowl
                                                                                                                        had a role prior to burial, and the evidence is pointing towards their use as
                                                                                                                        display objects. The common visual cliché of skulls adorning the walls of
                                                                                                                        prehistoric houses (Figure 6) may at last have some real archaeological
                                                                                                                         Acknowledgements                                 Bibliography
                                                                                                                         This research was carried out with the help of   Cunliffe, B. (1984) Danebury: an Iron Age Hillfort in Hampshire. The excavations 1969-1978,
                                                                                                                         Mark Maltby of Bournemouth University, and       Volume 2 The Finds. York: CBA
                                                                                                                         commissioned as part of a study for Wessex       Cunliffe, B. (1993) Danebury London: Batsford/English Heritage
                                                                                                                         Archaeology                                      Hambleton E & Maltby M. Unpublished. Animal Bones from Excavations at Battlesbury Bowl,
                                     Figure 6. Reconstruction of an Iron Age settlement (Source: Cunliffe 1993)
                                                                                                                                                                          Wiltshire. Bournemouth University Animal Bone Report for Wessex Archaeology (2004).

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