These Ancient Celts Were Buried With Their Animals

Some remains found in the 2,000-year-old graves were likely food offerings, but others may have been much-loved companions.

By: Brian Handwerk Smithsonian

Almost two decades ago, when construction unearthed a 2,000-year-old Celtic cemetery in what’s now the Italian city of Verona, scientists found the remains of humans buried alongside the other species that were most important to them.

A menagerie of Iron Age animals including dogs, horses and pigs shared the graves with their human contemporaries, who would have lived in the area just before Roman occupation. Some animals were butchered, and those pig or chicken parts may have been food offerings. But others, including dogs and a horse, were buried whole alongside human bodies. Such animals were extremely valued among Iron Age Celts and had religious symbolism, which may account for their presence in some graves. Or, they may have been the much-loved companions of the humans with them, meant to maintain emotional bonds with their owners for eternity, say the authors of a new study describing the finds, published Wednesday in PLOS One.

The burials were uncovered at Verona’s Seminario Vescovile, a site where people of the Celtic Cenomani culture lived and died during the third to first centuries B.C.E. The burials were in the necropolis of the community that thrived on the bank of the river Adige.

Among the 161 people buried at the site, at least 16 were buried with at least some animal parts. Shotgun sequencing of ancient human DNA, collected from bone powder of each of those 16 individuals, shows that none of them are closely related. That finding suggests that burying the dead with animals wasn’t the practice of any one family.

Thirteen of the human burials include only what are believed to be food offerings: butchered pieces of animals, such as pigs and chickens, which were frequently consumed. Four other burials, from babies to middle-aged men and women, also contain nearly intact remains of dogs and horses—animals not commonly eaten but held in high esteem. Their burials suggest deeper meanings, including religious associations and the status of the animals as companions.

“These animals, possibly as a reflection of their tight relationship with humans, were also associated with specific symbolic elements,” explains co-author Marco Milella, a bio-archaeologist at the University of Bern’s Institute of Forensic Medicine in Switzerland. Milella says a range of Celtic deities are associated with dogs and horses—including Epona, a goddess of fertility and protector of horses, and Sirona, a goddess of healing and growth often depicted with a small dog.

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“Dogs were also considered psychopomps,” Milella adds. “They escorted the soul of the deceased to the afterlife.”

Julius Caesar, in his firsthand account of the Gallic Wars, which occurred soon after the period of these burials, described a local custom of sacrificing a deceased person’s animals.

But the burials are so varied in both their human and animal aspects that no patterns emerge to suggest a single, easily recognizable interpretation. The graves also contain a variety of goods including pottery, coins, rings and knives.

A boy aged 10 to 17 years was buried with horse bones, including those from the animal’s jaw and limbs. Even though the whole animal was not buried, the authors say the isolated skeletal remains may correspond to a pars pro toto symbolic value—where parts of an animal represent the whole.

A middle-aged man was found buried with an array of grave goods including rings and a knife, as well as a small dog—while a 38-week-old perinatal, who died around the time of birth, was buried with a complete dog skeleton. “One of the interesting results of this study is the sharp difference in diet between the two analysed dogs,” says co-author Zita Laffranchi, a bio-archaeologist at the Institute of Forensic Medicine at the University of Bern.

The dog buried with the man enjoyed a diet pretty much close to that of humans, isotopic analysis shows. Such a diet is commonly found among prehistoric dogs at archaeological sites. But the dog buried with the 38-week-old ate completely different foods: vegetarian fare almost exclusively based on millet-like grains. Scientists offer a few possible reasons for this mysterious difference. Perhaps the dog was fed a distinct diet knowing it would be the offering of a sacrificial killing when a baby died. Or maybe the dog’s food was simply based on socioeconomic conditions. The dog had also suffered from a broken leg and recovered, so its diet might have been related to a period of convalescence—though it’s impossible to know if that speculation is true.

A middle-aged woman, likely between 36 and 50 years old, was buried with an entire horse. The grave also contained ribs and bones of four other horses, a dog skull, and bovine remains that may have been offerings of food. The remains of an unrelated 36-week-old perinatal, who died soon before or after birth, were also commingled with the woman’s bones. “This burial is indeed unique, and it strongly suggests a specific social standing for this person,” Milella says, noting that the team speculates that she could have been a ritual specialist, a healer or, since horses and dogs were associated with fertility, a midwife.

Dogs have been found in much older graves than this Iron Age cemetery, dating back toward the days when they may have been domesticated beginning 16,000 years or so ago. The famed 14,200-year-old Paleolithic pup found buried with a human at Bonn-Oberkassel, Germany, may be the earliest hard evidence for dog domestication. The dog’s bones suggest it was sick and lived because of human care, indicating it wasn’t likely valued for its utility but because of an emotional connection.

The practice of co-burial was widespread in many places dogs and humans roamed. Natufian people in today’s Israel buried a puppy cuddled in a human grave some 12,000 years ago. In what’s now Illinois, dogs were deliberately buried with care near human adults and children about 10,000 years ago. By about 4,000 years ago, humans were regularly burying their dead and their dogs in many locales, including in 26 graves uncovered near Barcelona.

In regions of Gaul, including the site of the new study, Caesar’s conquest doesn’t appear to have slowed down the practice. In the first few decades C.E., a few hundred years after the Seminario Vescovile graves were dug, a child was buried with what appears to be a pet puppy. The canine was curled at the child’s feet and was wearing a decorative collar and bell—and even had a toy.

Horses were domesticated relatively recently, about 5,500 years ago, but the animals quickly acquired revered status for their utility in hunting, farming and warfare. On the Eurasian steppe, where domestic horses likely arose, their bones mingle with human burials all the way back to that era. Sometimes they were buried in pairs, as they once pulled chariots, which accompanied high-status humans in death. The Tombos horse was entombed with a burial shroud between 1050 and 728 B.C.E. in what’s now Sudan. In China, one sixth-century B.C.E. ruler’s tomb included the remains of hundreds of horses.

The various Celtic peoples who lived across Northern and Western Europe from about 450 B.C.E. until the Roman conquest also took care burying horses. In 2019, a warrior, dated to between 320 and 174 B.C.E., was unearthed in Yorkshire, England, standing in his chariot and attended by the horses that once pulled it.

The people of Seminario Vescovile were among those Celtic cultures, but the story of exactly who is buried there isn’t that simple. Locals mixed with migrants from other Italic, Roman or La Tène cultures, the authors note. These peoples and their ways of celebrating their relationships with animals may have been very different in life—which is why they appear so mysteriously different in the grave.

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