Ancient horse burial in Gonur Depe.

Ancient Horse Burials of the Bronze Age: Folklore and Superstition

(Read the article on one page)

Horses have long been an important aspect in both western and eastern cultures. They are considered common in Indo-European traditions, with Chinese and Turkish traditions providing the most well-known from the east. It is significant that horse burials can be dated as far back as the Early Bronze Age, as there are few other animals that appear to hold such a valued position irrespective of culture. The earliest evidence comes from Newgrange in Ireland, a complex dating approximately to 2400 BC, and horses remained prominent in Ireland into the present.

In the traditions of Ireland, Britain and Scandinavia, horses have been known to represent warfare, fertility, status and power, and this has often been indicated by the wealth of material culture discovered in graves, bogs and other subterranean locations which have preserved the finds. Wheeled vehicles and harnesses are not uncommonly discovered, and horseshoes are symbols of good luck (even today) and have been found among other iron and horse related objects included in both inhumations and cremations. While this work is intended to focus on horse burials in relation to Ireland in particular, it is important to note their affiliation with other neighboring cultures to emphasize the importance of horse in both religious and non-religious environments.

Excavating a horse burial in 2006

Excavating a horse burial in 2006 ( Public Domain )

Horse skulls have also been found buried in foundations, and it has been the arduous task of archaeologists and ethnographers to determine what the purpose of those skulls might have been. As argued by Duffy (2015), there could be ritualistic and non-ritualistic implications. Though absolute certainty cannot be known without specific documentation to confirm, that there are two likely avenues by which these burials can be categorized reveals once again the pertinence of horses in Irish culture.

Skull of a horse.

Skull of a horse. ( Public Domain )

On the one hand, the skulls could be just what they appear to be: foundational burials. The ritual implications of this could have been akin to the placement of family heads in the walls and niches of houses in Çatalhöyük—that is, these burials could have been to ensure the good favor from both gods and ancestors, possibly ensuring this appreciation in lieu of being in possession of the actual remains of ancestors.

Horses are also popular in fairy lore up to the present and it is also possible that these burials served some purpose to ensure protection against the Otherworld, as indicated by Fanny D. Bergen (1895). Bergen discusses the various ways in which horses prove helpful against supernatural powers in Irish culture, such as their ability to feel evils "invisible to men" and thus protect their owners accordingly.

Çatalhöyük at the time of the first excavations.

Çatalhöyük at the time of the first excavations. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The opposing view of these ritualistic examples is that some foundational burials under homes and barns might have had a more practical purpose relating to the dispersal of supernatural spirits indirectly. Threshing was commonly practiced during the harvest, an activity requiring farmers to beat grains against the ground to dislodge the edible parts from the inedible. Dancing, meanwhile, was a popular social pastime in Irish culture, as evidenced by their longstanding céilí traditions and mythological texts.

Threshing Barn

Threshing Barn ( Public Domain )

According to a study by Moriarty (2015), the placement of horse skulls under the floorboards was intended enhance the resonance the sound of sound, improving the acoustics of these common locations. According to Hukantaival (2009), these skulls—referred to as "acoustic skulls"—it was "considered important that the sound of threshing carried far" and "it is well known that in many cultures loud noises are considered to expel evil forces". While threshing was an important activity in Irish culture to cultivate grains, dancing was an equally important aspect of the social culture. The horse skulls would emphasize the loud echoes of the dancers' feet just as it would the sounds of the threshing thereby protecting them during regular activities.

The Skull of a horse.

The Skull of a horse. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

However, the aforementioned examples from the works of Duffy, Moriarty and Hukantaival are not the only reasons why horses have been found buried. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, horses have been included in burials since the Early Bronze Age. Excavators have determined that the inclusion of a horse or the accoutrements of a horse (i.e., harness, bridle, and so on) were intended for various reasons, such as to exhibit the status of the deceased or to ensure the dead had transport to the Otherworld/underworld.

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Ancient Technology

Left side view of the Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan.
Teotihuacan’s Lost Kings, a television special, took an hour long look at the great city, its inhabitants, and the excavation of the Temple of Quetzalcoatl, (also known as the Feathered Serpent Pyramid.) The program revealed evidence of advanced engineering built into a tunnel system, and placed directly underneath the Pyramid.

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article