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4.3 Animal bone

Richardson: Assessment report on animal bone (Digital Archive)

The masonry well, already argued to be atypical in its location and construction, and in its ceramic assemblage, also differed markedly in its faunal content. This was true of the whole assemblage in relation to the 'background noise' of bone deposition across the site, both from the whole sequence and in relation to contexts broadly contemporary with the well (see archive). It was equally clear of its Associated Bone Groups (henceforth ABGs). This term, proposed by Hill (1995, 27) and now used to avoid any direct implication that such deposits were 'ritual' (Morris 2008; 2010; 2011), refers to the deposition of articulated parts of animals in a single event, hence 'primary' deposits. An unusually high number of bone fragments from the well comprised such groups.

In total, 1067 animal bone fragments were recovered (of which 722 (68%) are unrepeatable diagnostic zones: Table 3). This assemblage was much less fragmented, less eroded and better preserved than most of the material from the site (Table 4). In addition, the proportion of gnawed bones was low, while burnt bones were extremely rare compared with the site-wide material. Finally, it generated a very high proportion of butchered bone which, although concentrated in only a few fills, dominated the well assemblage as a whole. In particular, 14 of its 39 horse bones were butchered, compared with only three of the 71 from broadly contemporaneous assemblages elsewhere on the site.

Secondly, a total of nine of the ABGs from five taxa contributed a total of 250 bones from the well (Table 5). These groups of undisturbed assemblages were also typically better preserved and less heavily fragmented than disarticulated bones. This may reflect the speed and/or care with which they were deposited, and some may represent 'special animal deposits' (Grant 1984a; 1984b; 1991; Groot 2012, 139). ABGs were not unique to the well: other deposits contained a partial dog skeleton recovered from a late Roman ditch; a pig skeleton from a late Roman pit; and a sheep/goat skeleton associated with an undated spread. Yet no other wells on the site contained ABGs, or indeed great quantities of bone (none exceeded 200 fragments). Their fills yielded instead scatters of disarticulated bones, some of which were butchered and some gnawed, suggesting the unintentional redeposition of bone waste.

Finally, the proportion of the main taxa from the well (excluding animals represented by only a few bones and likely 'pitfall' victims) can be compared with those from features of similar date. While cattle, horse and pig do not vary significantly, sheep/goat are under-represented from the well, and red deer and dog over-represented, both the latter as ABGs of partial skeletons (Table 6). Thus, as a complete assemblage, the material from the well marks itself out from the rest of the site in terms of bone condition, ABG numbers and taxa represented, suggesting that it should not be interpreted as 'normal' domestic rubbish (cf. Morris 2008, 94). The bone content of individual fills is described next in detail, from earliest to latest.

Basal fill 2109 contained few animal bones and, of the eleven fragments recovered, seven were butchered, one was gnawed and only one was complete. These all suggest the low-level, perhaps unintentional, discard of bone waste into a functioning well, fitting with its interpretation based on deposit character.

The second fill, 2093, contained two adult female pig skulls, their unsophisticated butchering indicating the removal of the mandibles. Two atlases and an axis may also be associated with these ABGs. The skulls seem likely to correspond with the well's decommissioning of the well, as their putrefaction would have fouled the water supply. Whether this was just convenient disposal of unwanted waste in a recently disused feature or an intended outcome is unclear, but the left mandibles removed from both animals were still deposited with the skulls. Many of the other bones from this deposit, however, were disarticulated and appear to be associated with carcass processing and meat consumption, a total of 75 bones being butchered. These included many cattle-sized rib fragments but also eight horse bones that display marks most likely associated with carcass reduction. The presence of nine gnawed bones, unusual in the well, indicates that at least a portion of the bones were re-deposited here. While this material together does not preclude structured deposition, it has the signature of re-deposited refuse. The solitary red deer bone (a cranial fragment: Skeleton 1) recovered from 2093 could belong to the partial skeleton found across fills 2046 and 1979 (but see further discussion, below).

The third fill, 2046, was the richest in terms of animal bones, yielding 476 fragments (although 159 were of frogs/toads, likely 'pitfall' victims). It included a horse skull (Skull 2) and two horned cattle skulls (Skulls 1 and 3) (red deer bones recorded from this context are part of the partial skeleton derived from fill 1979 and are considered fully with the latter, below) (Figure 9). Other, disarticulated bones are essentially those of cattle and horse. All major body parts from both are represented, while numerous paired bones for cattle (hyoid, first and second phalanges, metacarpals and metatarsals) and for horse (pelvis, plus an articulating radius and ulna, and astragalus and calcaneus) suggest rapid disposal. Of the cattle bones, 25 were butchered, including damage to three scapulae associated with hook damage during smoking, and skinning marks on a metacarpal. Six horse bones also showed dismembering marks.

Figure 9

Figure 9: Animal bone concentration in deposit 2046

The fourth fill, 1979, contained the majority of the bones from the red deer skeleton (Skeleton 1, other elements being noted in 1979, above) and two further skeletons, a dog (Skeleton 2) and a calf (Skeleton 3). The deer skeleton is from a sub-adult individual between 13 and 16 months old. Based on an early summer birth, this animal was hunted in the summer or autumn of its second year. In the absence of any antlers or antler buds, it is presumably female. Cut marks to its left humerus indicate that the carcass was processed to some extent, although with all body parts present the animal was clearly not dismembered and its joints widely distributed. The calf (1 to 8 months old) and the dog (c. 6 months old) may indicate that their selection was based on age. This fill also contained a pole-axed cattle skull from an adult animal (Skull 4) and a large, complete red deer antler from an impressively large and mature stag, both clearly contrasting with the age at death of deer, dog and calf. Excluding the small bones from 'pitfall' victims, the only other bones comprised a gnawed fragment of sheep/goat metacarpal and a cattle-sized rib fragment. Thus the whole group is markedly different from the discard of general rubbish seen elsewhere.

When considering material from successive, overlying deposits 2046 and 1979, there are good reasons to see these two contexts as a single episode, a conclusion supported by deposit and ceramic interpretations. Stratigraphic analysis interpreted these fills as representing the 'closure' of the well, and the faunal material provides further grounds for seeing a ritual component in this activity. Firstly, the number of paired cattle bones from 2046 suggests that disposal of certain disarticulated elements was rapid, perhaps a product of primary butchery practices. Only a small minority of gnawed bones indicate the incorporation of previously discarded material in the well-filling process at this time. This contrasts with the young deer, young dog and calf ABGs, which may have been selected to contrast with the mature cow skull and the complete antler of a large stag, the latter's deposition making a statement about 'sacrificing' so much valuable raw material.

Recovering elements of the same animal in both 2046 and 1979 is unsurprising, given the links between these contexts noted above. The finding of a red deer cranial fragment in underlying fill 2093 (Skeleton 1) is more problematic, however, especially given the animal's rarity and the latter deposit having quite different formation processes from 2046/1979. Perhaps this small fragment was first deposited in the upper layers and entered 2093 by settling into a void, although there is no evidence that other material of similar size, but datable, intruded in this way. Alternatively, it may be simple coincidence that a single deer bone was dumped into the well at an early stage and an articulated example placed there later (there is no certainty that the first connects to the second as different parts of a single animal). Or perhaps it was memory of the earlier deposition that led to later repetition: although early fill 2093 is distinct from 2046/1979, this need not mean that they are separated by any great length of time.

The remaining well fills produced only nine further bone zones, six of which were frog/toad bones. They thus contrast starkly with the preceding three fills, which contained 96% of the diagnostic zones recovered from the well and all of the ABGs. This paucity might suggest a phase of natural silting after the intense dumping of bones in preceding deposits. The scarcity of bones from all later deposits, though surprising in the general paucity of pitfall victims, supports the notion that, above layer 1979, stagnant water, interleaved with periods when masonry collapsed from the sides of the feature, dominated the process of accumulation, with little evidence of intentional human activity, whether of a functional or symbolic character.


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