3.3.3 Horses

Most horses were kept at the grazing grounds in the flood basins. The horses that were used for transport were kept in the settlement, or may have grazed close to the settlement. Some horses were stabled; possibly these were horses undergoing elementary training before being sold. An enclosed field in the settlement was probably used for cattle or horses. While butchery marks demonstrate that horse meat was consumed, the less fragmented state of horse bones when compared to cattle bones indicates that this was not a regular occurrence.

At the beginning of the 2nd century, the proportion of horse increased rapidly in Tiel-Passewaaij. High proportions of horse are found in several other settlements in the area in the Middle Roman period (Fig. 39). While an increasing proportion of horse could in theory reflect a decrease in the number of cattle and sheep just as much as an increase in the number of horses, there is no reason why herds of cattle especially would be reduced. Beef was still the most common meat consumed, both in rural settlements and army camps. An increase in the number of horses is supported by the occurrence of a new type of buildings in the same period; these buildings are seen as stables. The fact that the proportion of grassland also increased means that the total number of grazing animals could not have been smaller than in previous periods.

Figure 39

Figure 39: Species composition in 2nd-century rural settlements in the Dutch River Area with a high percentage of horse bones. PHW: Tiel Passewaaij (Passewaaijse Hogeweg; Groot 2008a); WDDH: Wijk bij Duurstede-De Horden (Laarman 1996b); EW: Ewijk (Lauwerier 1988); GLM: Geldermalsen-Hondsgemet (Groot 2009); WES: Oss-Ussen Westerveld (Lauwerier and IJzereef 1998); HOU8: Houten site 8A (de Vries and Laarman 2000); KEST: Kesteren-De Woerd (Zeiler 2001); HUIA: Huissen-Loostraat site A (Groot 2008c). n is the total number of identified fragments. Illustration Bert Brouwenstijn, ACVU.

It has long been assumed that the high proportions of horse bones reflect a specialisation in horse breeding, connected with the presence of the army (Hessing 2001; Laarman 1996a, 356; Laarman 1996b, 377; Roymans 1996, 82). Horses were not just used by the cavalry, but also by officers of other army units and for transport of people and goods. Since there is no evidence for a central supply of horses (Davies 1969, 434-35), it seems likely that many of the horses needed were acquired locally.

For Tiel-Passewaaij, there was one problem with the horse breeding hypothesis. At a site where horses were bred for and sold at market, we would expect to find an over-representation of juvenile horses, either natural deaths or animals that were not up to standard. However, there is no strong representation of young horses in phase 4 to 6, the phases for which the proportion of horse bones is highest (Fig. 40), although a strong representation of non-adults is found in the previous phase. At first glance, this seems to go against the idea of horse breeding in the 2nd century. However, we cannot overlook the increase in percentage of horse bones, which undeniably points to an intensification of horse keeping. Perhaps we should adjust our expectations, or rather, regard our material from a different perspective. Our bone sample consists of animal bones found inside the settlement, and this has consequences for what we find.

Figure 40

Figure 40: Mortality profile for horses in Tiel-Passewaaijse Hogeweg in the Roman period. n is the number of mandibles and maxillae for which an age could be established. Illustration Bert Brouwenstijn, ACVU.

In the Early Roman period, the few horses would be kept close to or inside the settlement, where they would be available for riding or transport when needed. Because the horses lived inside the settlement, any animals that died would have had a good chance of ending up in our bone sample. With the intensification of horse keeping in phase 4, it was no longer efficient to keep all horses inside the settlement, as this would require too much fodder. It would make sense to keep only those horses in the settlement that were needed for work or that were undergoing training. The main herd was kept at pastures away from the settlement (Fig. 41). Keeping horses at grazing grounds only a few hundred metres away would ensure that any animals dying there would not be found in our bone assemblage. Instead of an over-representation of young horses, this would lead to young horses being under-represented. This is certainly the case for Passewaaijse Hogeweg in phase 4 to 6 and could explain the apparent paradox of intensification of horse keeping, but absence of foals.

Figure 41

Figure 41: Konik horses in a nature reserve (Lentevreugd) in the Netherlands. Photo L.I. Kooistra.

The question is, of course, whether the local landscape could support large numbers of horses. The flood basins may not have been suitable for growing arable crops, but they were eminently suitable for extensive horse breeding. Modern herds of Konik horses live in a similar environment year round, without requiring any extra food. Research shows that reproduction is high and mortality low (Markerink 2002, 107, 131; Cornelissen and Vulink 1996, 62-64). The horses bred in Tiel-Passewaaij are not related to modern Koniks, but they probably share similarities with regard to size and hardiness.

Interestingly, a different situation is found in Geldermalsen-Hondsgemet (Groot 2009, 385-86). Here, the peak in horse coincides with a high percentage of young horses. This could reflect a different way of horse management, with the horses being kept closer to the settlement, or spending more time stabled. This could be related to a small difference in landscape. The flood basins around Geldermalsen seem to have been more extensive and wetter. The part of the flood basin in Tiel-Passewaaij closest to the settlement may have been used for arable farming in the 2nd century, which means that animals were grazing further from the settlement. If pasture for horses was closer to the settlement in Geldermalsen-Hondsgemet, any casualties would have a higher chance of ending up in the excavated area. It could also reflect a different way of dealing with culled horses, which may have been slaughtered and consumed more often in Geldermalsen-Hondsgemet, although the percentages for butchery marks for horse bones are only slightly higher in Geldermalsen-Hondsgemet (Groot 2008a, 79, fig. 2.19; Groot 2009, 386). Breeding horses in the flood basins would require little labour. Stabled animals would need fodder, which needed to be grown or collected.


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Last updated: Tue Nov 10 2009