Mourning the Sacrifice. Behaviour and Meaning behind Animal Burials

Morris, James orcid iconORCID: 0000-0002-5756-0362 (2016) Mourning the Sacrifice. Behaviour and Meaning behind Animal Burials. In: Mourning Animals: Rituals and Practices Surrounding Animal Death. The Animal Turn . Michigan State University Press (MSU Press), East Lansing, pp. 11-20. ISBN 9781611862126

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The remains of animals, fragments of bone and horn, are often the most common finds recovered from archaeological excavations. The potential of using this material to examine questions of past economics and environment has long been recognized and is viewed by many archaeologists as the primary purpose of animal remains. In part this is due to the paradigm in which zooarchaeology developed and a consequence of practitioners’ concentration on taphonomy and quantification. But the complex intertwined relationships between humans and animals have long been recognized, a good example being Lévi-Strauss’s oft quoted “natural species are chosen, not because they are ‘good to eat’ but because they are ‘good to think.’” The relatively recent development of social zooarchaeology has led to a more considered approach to the meanings and relationships animals have with past human cultures. Animal burials are a deposit type for which social, rather than economic, interpretations are of particular relevance.

When animal remains are recovered from archaeological sites they are normally found in a state of disarticulation and fragmentation, but occasionally remains of an individual animal are found in articulation. These types of deposits have long been noted in the archaeological record, although their descriptions, such as “special animal deposit,” can be heavily loaded with interpretation. In Europe some of the earliest work on animal burials was Behrens’s investigation into the “Animal skeleton finds of the Neolithic and Early Metallic Age,” which discussed 459 animal burials from across Europe. Dogs were the most common species to be buried, and the majority of these cases were associated with inhumations. Behrens suggests that animal parts not found in association with human remains may be foundation deposits for the divine blessing of a new construction or perhaps part of an animal cult. For remains recovered with human remains Behrens uses three categories of explanation: sociological, the animal is a gift; spiritual, the animal is a guide; and emotional, the animal may be a favoured pet or a gift by the mourners. Inspired by Gabalówna, Behrens accepted that ideas of sacrifice, emotion, and holy status might be applied to humans and animals alike. The concepts of animals as sacrifices and as holy objects are still trends within the interpretation of animal burials today, but Behrens remains one of the few archaeologists to consider, albeit briefly, the human emotion behind these deposits.

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