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Ancient horse burial in Gonur Depe.

Ancient Horse Burials of the Bronze Age: Folklore and Superstition

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.

Depending on the culture, the inclusion of the horse served a variety of roles. While the precise reasons might never be known with absolute certainty, records can help in deducing the purposes. In Irish culture in particular, mythological texts like the Ulster Cycle, Lebor Gabála Érenn, Táin Bó Cúailnge, etc., laws codes, works of art (such as sculpture) all served to indicate the likely reasons for the burial of horses in particular. Nonetheless, though the practice of burying horse skulls has greatly decreased in popularity, horses still remain a valued aspect of Irish culture as suggested by present superstitions and the continued appreciation of mythology and lore.

Top image:  Ancient horse burial in Gonur Depe. ( hceebee/flickr)

By Ryan Stone

Bibliography

Bergen, Fanny D. 1895. "Burial and Holiday Customs and Beliefs of the Irish Peasantry." The Journal of American Folklore 8.28. pp.19-25.

Cross, Pamela J. 2011. "Horse Burial in First Millennium AD Britain: Issues of Interpretation." European Journal of Archaeology. Vol. 14. pp. 190-209.

Duffy, Paul. 2015. "Heady Days: Head to Head: Sacrifice V’s Acoustics. Paul Duffy discusses some differing interpretations for a horse skull deposit at Haynestown, Co. Louth." Irish Archaeological Consultancy. http://www.iac.ie/heady-days/.

Hukantaival, S. 2009. "Horse Skulls and 'Alder Horse': The Horse as a Depositional Sacrifice in Building". Archaeologia Baltica, Vol. 11. pp. 350–356.

Love, S. 2010. "An Archaeology of Mudbrick Houses from Çatalhöyük", in I. Hodder (ed), Çatalhöyük Dwelling: Reports from the 2002-08 seasons. Los Angeles: Cotsen Institute.

McLoughlin, G. 2012 Archaeological Excavation at Haynestown-Haggardstown Dundalk, Co. Louth, unpublished report on behalf of Groveview Builders Ltd.

Moriarty, C. 2015. Buried Horse Skulls: Folklore and Superstition in Early Modern Ireland. http://irisharchaeology.ie/2015/02/buried-horse-skulls-folklore-and-supe...

Sikora, M. 2004 Diversity in Viking Age Horse Burial: A Comparative Study of Norway, Iceland, Scotland and Ireland. The Journal of Irish Archaeology. 12/13, 87–109.

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