Animal 'Ritual' Killing: from Remains to Meanings

Morris, James orcid iconORCID: 0000-0002-5756-0362 (2011) Animal 'Ritual' Killing: from Remains to Meanings. In: The Ritual Killing and Burial of Animals: European Perspectives. Oxbow Books, Oxford, pp. 8-21. ISBN 9781842174449

[thumbnail of __lha-032_pers-G_00066561_My Documents_Library_Morris, J. 2012. Animal 'ritual' killing from remains to meanings. In Pluskowski (ed.). The Ritual Killing and Burial of Animals European Perspectives.pdf]
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As humans, we interact with our environment and the other species inhabiting it in a variety of ways. Animals not only provide a source of sustenance, but a means for humans to express their social concepts through interaction. The range of human interactions with other species can still be seen in our modern world; such as the use of animal characteristics as metaphors and the humanisation of certain species. Douglas (1990, 33) suggests we think about how animals relate to one another, on the basis of our own relationships. Therefore, human social categories are extended into the animal world. Classical literature can offer examples of this. Aristotle (Politics, 1254b) discussed the similarity between working animals and slaves, which in Roman law were treated together, noting ‘the usefulness of slaves diverges little from that of animals; bodily service for the necessities of life is forthcoming from both’. This entwining of the human and animal worlds was also present in the form of animal sacrifices and Gilhus (2006) has discussed the inventions and developments of such a tradition in depth. Evidence of animal sacrifice is not just limited to the classical world, for example we also have evidence from iconographic depictions from Mesoamerica (Emery 2005), as well as ethnographic observations (Morris 2000, 138).

The challenge we face is to use archaeologically recovered faunal data to investigate such social zooarchaeological issues. As the majority of animal remains are of a fragmentary nature, most investigations into social concepts have utilised articulated animal remains. A number of terms have been used when discussing such concepts including animal burials and special animal deposits. However, for this paper the term associated bone group (ABG) has been adopted. Although at first it may appear unimportant, the terminology and language used by archaeologists describing a deposit can greatly influence its interpretation, and importantly, the concepts of other archaeologists. Terms such as ‘special’, to many archaeologists, automatically implies a ritual connotation, similarly ‘burial’, a term utilised mainly for human remains, may conjure images of a ceremonial/ritual event. This is important because within British archaeology the interpretation of these deposits has been stuck in a dichotomy between the ritual and the mundane (Morris 2008a; 2010c). Hill (1995) was also critical of the use of ‘special deposit’ and suggested the term associated/articulated bone group, to remove any connotations.

This paper draws on the results of a project that investigated the nature of ABGs in Britain from the Neolithic (c.4000BC) to the end of the late medieval period (c.AD1550). Due to the large time-span it was not possible to investigate every deposit in Britain, therefore just published data from southern England (Dorset, Hampshire and Wiltshire) and Yorkshire was utilised. The results of the project are discussed in detail elsewhere, along with a complete list of the sites recorded (Morris 2008b; 2010c), therefore a brief overview of the major trends will be discussed here. Further consideration will then be given to the interpretation of these deposits and a biographical method based on the actions used to create the ABG will be considered. Finally the paper will use this approach to discuss the presence of ritual animal killings in the British archaeological record.

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