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Roman chariot and horses. An ancient ritual horse burial has been discovered In Croatia. Source: Fernando Cortés / Adobe Stock.

1800-Year-Old Horse and Chariot Burial Discovered in Croatia


Archaeologists in Croatia have unearthed an 1,800 year-old fossil of a Roman chariot and two horses.

Archaeologists from the City Museum Vinkovci and The Institute of Archaeology from Zagreb discovered the Roman carriage with its two wheels and horses at the Jankovacka Dubrava site close to the village of Stari Jankovci, near the city of Vinkovci, in eastern Croatia.

This ancient equestrian discovery was made in a large burial chamber in which the two horses and a chariot had been lain and because burials beneath such mounds were “exceptional” during the Roman period in the Pannonian Basin it is thought to be part of a burial ritual for extremely wealthy families.

Study The Horses And The Rest Will Follow

The discovery is estimated to be from the 3rd century AD and according to a Daily Mail article, city museum curator Boris Kratofil told local media that the custom of burial under tumuli (mounds) was an exceptional burial custom associated with “extremely wealthy families” who were prominent in the administrative, social, and economic life of the province of Pannonia.

The director of the Institute of Archaeology, Marko Dizdar, told press that the discovery was “sensational” and “unique” in Croatia and that a long process of restoration and conservation will now be carried out on the findings, before a complete analysis and he predicts that in “a few years” we will know a little more about the family buried in around 1,800 years ago.

But according to Dr. Dizdar his team are more interested in the “horses themselves” and whether they were bred here or elsewhere in the Roman Empire. With the answers to these questions the researchers will be better positioned to assess the importance, wealth, and status of the buried family.

Ancient Croatia Was Musical Chairs

Around 1,000 BC Croatia was populated with incoming Illyrians of Indo-European origin who were themselves displaced in the 4th century BC by invading Celtic tribes who drove the Illyrians into what is today Albania. According to an MSN News article in 168 BC the Romans conquered the last Illyrian king, Genthius, and slowly expanded the Roman province of Illyricum through wars, taking over most of the Dalmatian coast, renaming Illyricum as Dalmatia (covering most of today's Croatia), and by 11 BC they had extended their empire to the Danube River.

The Roman provinces of Illyricum. (DIREKTOR / Public Domain)

The Roman provinces of Illyricum. (DIREKTOR / Public Domain)

Romans ruled over Dalmatia for 500 years and built a road network linking the Aegean and Black Seas with the Danube River and made Solin their capital. In the late 3rd century AD when the Roman Empire fragmented, the region was divided into Dalmatia Salonitana and Dalmatia Praevalitana which was the precursor for the division of the Eastern and Western Roman Empires. By 395 AD, Eastern and Western Empires existed with modern day Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Hercegovina in the west and Serbia, Kosovo, and Macedonia on the east which later became part of the Byzantine Empire.

What Was Ritual Horse Burial All About?

Returning to the horse burial, the scientists, and all of the press coverage you will read say the discovery was a “ritual burial”, but what does this actually mean in the context of horses? Seeking an answer as to what the practice meant one might turn to a fascinating 2017 research paper written by Dr. Pamela J. Cross and published on titled Horse Burial in First Millennium AD Britain: Issues of Interpretation.

Excavation of a Roman horse burial in London in 2006. (Mididoctors~commonswiki / Public Domain)

Excavation of a Roman horse burial in London in 2006. (Mididoctors~commonswiki / Public Domain)

According to Dr. Cross, horse burials are prevalent across northwest Europe and represent "ritual deposition” and according to her paper both horse and human-horse burials are linked to non-Christian burial and sacrificial practices of the Iron Age and Early Medieval period.

Furthermore, Dr. Cross wrote that the Icelandic Sagas, Beowulf, and other legends and chronicles reflect archaeological findings and that the human-horse burials are linked with “high status individuals” and “warrior graves” just like the discovery in Croatia. And answering what complete-horse and horse-element burials may represent, she said “ritual feasting and/or sacrificial rites linked with fertility, luck, and the ancestors”.

Quite obviously, when the horses and chariot were being buried nobody closed their eyes and asked for a little luck in the special grave never being found and opened.

Top image: Roman chariot and horses. An ancient ritual horse burial has been discovered In Croatia. Source: Fernando Cortés / Adobe Stock.

Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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