BMCR 2022.12.11

Roman animals in ritual and funerary contexts

, , , , Roman animals in ritual and funerary contexts. Proceedings of the 2nd meeting of the Zooarchaeology of the Roman Period Working Group, Basel 1st-4th February, 2018. Kolloquien zur Vor- und Frühgeschichte, 26. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2021. Pp. xvi, 256. ISBN 9783447116411 €78,00.

Open access

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]


This volume includes sixteen papers that were originally presented at the conference entitled Roman Animals in Ritual and Funerary Contexts, which took place in Basel in February (1st–4th) 2018 and represented the second meeting of the International Council for Archaeozoology Working Group on the Zooarchaeology of the Roman Period.

The volume is the first in a new version of the series, which is published in print by Harrassowitz and simultaneously via Open Access. It brings together informative, multilingual scholarship (thirteen papers are in English, two in German, and one in French) that relies on a bioarchaeological approach and investigates the role of animals in domestic, ceremonial, but, mainly, religious, that is, sacrificial and funerary contexts throughout various Roman localities and provinces from the third century BCE to the fifth century CE. Framed, in most cases, by the broader theme of ritual, these contexts are instrumental in illuminating the position of animals in the diet, economy, identity, ceremonial practices, and religious beliefs of the inhabitants of the Roman world, during the aforementioned period, and throughout a geographical region that draws from western and central Europe, but is also receptive of the Balkans, the Mediterranean world, and Egypt. In fact, it is the Egyptian site of ‘Ain el-Gedida with its fourth- and fifth-century CE church complex and the animal bones found in it, discussed by Pam J. Crabtree and Douglas V. Campana, that expands the cultural boundaries of the volume forward into early Christianity, while two papers, one by Veronika Sossau on meat-sharing and sacrifice in Geometric and Archaic Greece and the other by Angela Trentacoste on animal bones in subterranean spaces in fifth-century BCE Italy, stretch the cultural and chronological limits of the volume back to pre-Classical Greece and pre-Roman Italy, respectively.

Sossau’s paper adopts a clearly integrative approach by incorporating animal bones, material (i.e., knives as funerary offerings and sacrificial tools), visual, and textual evidence in its discussion of the socio-political value of Geometric and Archaic Greek funerary and sacrificial meat consumption, thus emphasizing the complementarity of evidence that the study of pre-Classical Greek and, in essence, all ancient animals demands. Trentacoste’s paper is in a similar vein, but focusing chiefly on the faunal remains found, along with pottery and architectural elements, in the fills of two underground structures of possible chthonic character deliberately closed in the fifth century BCE—a small (1.7×1.5 m) shrine equipped with three niches and a floor conduit in Cerveteri, and a large (9×9 m) rock-cut cavern (Cavità 254), initially a quarry, in Orvieto. It highlights successfully the methodological and interpretative challenges present, when one considers the complex notion of “ritual” in association with zooarchaeology. In doing so, the author exposes a connection, which, while it is eagerly mentioned in the preface to the volume by the editors as the selected theme of study, its complexity, given the long-acknowledged ambiguity of the term, “ritual,” is not addressed as one might expect. Despite this unintentional oversight, which may be attributable to the very elusiveness of “ritual,” the volume is commendable for underlining the importance of archaeological context in the analysis and interpretation of Roman faunal remains. This importance is effectively highlighted in Sabine Deschler-Erb’s essay, “Diversity in unity: Animals in Roman ritual and funeral contexts,” which serves as the introduction to the volume and treats the variety and distinctiveness of the represented material as a paradigm of the invaluable contributions of zooarchaeology to the study of Roman antiquity, in particular, religion. Further attentive to the wide range of the interpretational prospects of zooarchaeology, Deschler-Erb stresses how our understanding of certain inferred phenomena, such as continuity, adaptation, and change, can be advanced through the detailed recovery and study of animal finds. In like manner, the preface to the series emphasizes the specific focus of the volume on the study of faunal remains, while bringing attention to the nuanced role of regionally determined ideas, developments, and practices regarding animals in the Roman world. Given these contributions, and as it is clearly stated in both the preface and introduction to the volume, the proceedings aspire to provide the scholarly impetus for new collaborations and exchange of ideas among researchers, whose interests lie in the use of animals in Roman times.

Each of the sixteen papers presents zooarchaeological evidence, whose value in understanding the position of animals in the lives of people throughout the Roman world is indispensable. For this reason, it is not easy to decide which essays deserve special reference and which do not. What follows below is a discussion of a representative selection of papers based on geographical location, the treatment of animal remains deriving from diverse archaeological contexts, and the light these remains shed on the relationship between human and non-human animals in Roman times. The order of discussion is not arbitrary, but rather suggestive of a geographical journey that shifts the admitted focus of the proceedings from the western provinces of the Roman Empire to the eastern ones, as it moves from east to west, and discusses four archaeological sites that have, according to the reviewer, yielded unusual zooarchaeological evidence: the Ploutonion of Hierapolis in Turkey, the Viminacium amphitheater in Serbia, the sanctuary of Juno at Tas-Silġ in Malta, and the cult of Sabazius in Sorviodurum, Germany.

Jacopo De Grossi Mazzorin and Claudia Minniti’s paper is a preliminary assessment of the bird and mammal bones recovered from two votive deposits in Room Q1 of the Ploutonion of Hierapolis in Turkey. Studied since 2014, these very well-preserved bones date originally from the first and second centuries CE, while the stratigraphy in Room Q1 suggests that they were deposited there secondarily as ‘repair offerings,’[1] during a renovation phase of the sanctuary that took place sometime between the end of the third and middle of the fourth centuries CE. In both deposits, the majority of the remains belonged to both mature and immature specimens of rock dove and domestic fowl which bore burning marks. That both deposits yielded almost complete skeletons suggests that the carcasses were not dismembered after they were sacrificed by asphyxiation caused by the toxic fumes emitting from the cave of the Ploutonion. This observation complements the religious activities that were performed there as described by Strabo and Pliny the Elder. Also represented in the deposits are the often-burnt remains of young, sacrificed cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs. Additional faunal remains refer to hare, canine, reptile, and fish bones, all thought to be parts of the religious rites performed in the Ploutonion. Despite its preliminary state, the study is fundamental in elucidating the non-traditional (i.e., asphyxiation) and traditional (i.e., meat consumption based on cut and burnt marks) treatment of animal remains in a sacrificial context that was determined by local geography, geology, the religious beliefs associated with them, and the deposition of these remains in a secondary archaeological context.

Another non-traditional case with possible sacrificial overtones is attested in the dog burials excavated in the arena of the Roman amphitheater of Viminacium in Serbia and discussed in the paper by Sonja Vuković, Mladen Jovičić, Dimitrije Marković, and Ivan Bogdanović. Constructed in the second century CE, but used as a cemetery in the fourth century CE, the arena of the amphitheater has yielded, since 2010, a dozen fourth-century CE pits, one of which, being roughly square in size and dating from 350–400 CE, was filled with earth, brick and pottery fragments, glass beads and vessels, a few bones of cattle, pig, horse, sheep, goat, and a cat, and the partial skeletons of at least thirteen dogs. Belonging to canines of different ages and breeds, these skeletons were treated in an unusual way, judging from the breakage of the bones and butchery marks on them and the color alterations in the bones which suggest exposure to heat, and thus roasting. This special treatment of the Viminacium dogs, which may have been essential to purification rituals, cannot be associated with a specific deity, but is, nevertheless, indicative of the distinct relationship that developed between humans and dogs at the site.

Constructed in the late eighth century BCE and dedicated to Astarte, who, after the Roman occupation of 218 BCE, was assimilated to Juno, the Phoenician and Punic sanctuary of Tas-Silġ in Malta played an important role in the maritime and commercial activities of the ancient Mediterranean. The paper written by Jacopo DeGrossi Mazzorin discusses animal remains found in two different spots within the sanctuary, a tank (“Tank 52”), which was, probably, used for ablution and, based on excavated pottery, was abandoned sometime between the end of the second and the first centuries BCE, when part of the sanctuary was restored; and “Area C,” where animal remains belonging to sheep, goats, domestic fowl, dove, fish and mollusks, dating between the end of the third century BCE and the beginning of the first century CE were found and are thought to have been deposited there secondarily as the remains of sacrificial meals that occurred initially somewhere else within the sanctuary. Both assemblages yielded also small quantities of dog, weasel, North African hedgehog, rabbit, and red deer bones. While these faunal remains have been seen as evidence for animal meat consumption, also supported by the significant presence of cooking ware, the complete absence of pig remains in “Tank 52” has been interpreted as a thoughtful Roman tactic that considered the religious sensibilities of local people for whom the pig, a traditional Roman sacrificial victim, would have been an impure animal. This interpretation underlines the importance of animal remains in deciphering intangible human behavior, whose presence in the archaeological record would have been otherwise undetectable.

The paper by Constanze Höpken and Hubert Berke discusses the faunal remains and fragmentary pottery found, in 1993, in a second-century CE pit associated with the cult of Sabazius and unearthed at Sorviodurum, a Roman military fort in modern German Straubing. Rectangular in shape and of sizeable dimensions (4.6×3.3 m and 1.8 m in depth), the pit was situated in the residential area of the nearby civilian settlement and is thought to have contained the remnants of a banquet in honor of Sabazius mixed, however, with settlement waste, including the remains of old horses. Containing fragments of more than ten snake pots decorated with Sabazius’s additional animal symbols—frogs, lizards, and tortoises—and countless other fragments of ceramic cups, vessels, plates, lamps, and altars, the pit yielded also a variety of animal bones that belong to cattle, sheep, pigs, and chickens of different ages and are thought to have served as food during the celebration of the cult of Sabazius. Additional animal bones included those of wild boar, deer, goose, dog, the skull of a cat, and the paw of a bear, which is interpreted as a delicacy probably consumed during the same celebration. These finds, which comprise a ritual deposit associated with the cult of Sabazius, are instrumental in shedding light onto our limited knowledge of such an elusive deity and his cult in Roman times.

As with the examples above, the remaining papers are useful contributions to the centrality of zooarchaeology in deciphering the relationship between humans and animals in Roman times and throughout a wide geographical range that takes readers also to Briga in France, Losodica in Bavaria, the Roman Netherlands, Kempraten in Switzerland, Sarmizegetusa in Romania, Carnuntum in Austria, Belgic Gaul, southern Belgium, and Britannia, thus highlighting not only the richness and complexity of animal remains in Roman times, but also the imperative need to turn our scholarly attention to animals as serious shapers of the archaeological record. Some editorial inconsistencies (BCE/CE; B.C./AD) are too minor to detract from this intended purpose of the volume.


Authors and Titles

Sabine Deschler-Erb, Umberto Albarella, Silvia Valenzuela Lamas, Gabriele Rasbach, Vorwort zur Reihe “Kolloquien zur Vor- und Frühgeschichte” / Preface to the series “Kolloquien zur Vor- und Frühgeschichte”

Sabine Deschler-Erb, Diversity in unity: Animals in Roman ritual and funeral contexts

Alice Bourgois, Deux dépôts exceptionnels à Briga («Bois l’Abbé» Eu, France)

Pam J. Crabtree, Douglas V. Campana, Faunal Remains from a 4th–5th century church complex at ‘Ain el-Gedida, Upper Egypt

Jacopo De Grossi Mazzorin, Evidence of ritual practices from the animal remains found in the Juno Sanctuary at Tas Silġ, Malta

Jacopo De Grossi Mazzorin, Claudia Minniti, Bird and other animal sacrifice in the Ploutonion of Hierapolis, Phrygia (Turkey): Some results from two votive deposits

Sabine Deschler-Erb, Andreas Schaflitzl, A herd of sheep led to the slaughter—Evidence of hetacombs at Losodica/Munningen (Bavaria)

Maaike Groot, Animals in funerary ritual in the Roman Netherlands

Simone Häberle, Sabine Deschler-Erb, Heide Hüster Plogmann, Barbara Stopp, Sarah Lo Russo, Pirmin Koch, Regula Ackermann, Animals in ritual and domestic context: A comparative study between the faunal assemblages from residential areas and two sanctuaries at the vicus of Kempraten (Rapperswil-Jona, CH)

Constanze Höpken, Hubert Berke, Sabazios-Kult in Sorviodurum: Tierknochen aus einer Kultgrube in Straubing (Bayern/Deutchland)

Constanze Höpken, Manuel Fiedler, Tierknochen aus dem Heiligtum der größeren Götter Domnus und Domna in Sarmizegetusa (Rumänien)

Günther Karl Kurst, Erika Gál, Verena Gassner, Choice beef for the worshippers—The cattle record from the sanctuary of Jupiter Heliopolitanus at Carnuntum (Austria)

Sébastien Lepetz, Animals in funerary practices in Belgic Gaul between the end of the 1st century BC and the beginning of the 5th century AD: From gallic practices to Gallo-Roman practices

Fabienne Pigière, Animals in funerary practices during the early and late Roman periods in southern Belgium

Clare Rainsford, Anthony C. King, Susan Jones, Rose Hooker, Gilbert Burleigh, Cremated animal bone from two ritual ceremonial sites in Britannia

Veronika Sossau, Animals to the slaughter. Meat-sharing and sacrifice in Geometric and Archaic Greece

Angela Trentacoste, In the belly of the earth: Bones and the closing of sacred space in central Italy

Sonja Vuković, Mladen Jovičić, Dimitrije Marković, Ivan Bogdanović, Sacrificing dogs in the late Roman World? A case study of a multiple dog burial from Viminacium amphitheatre



[1] According to Francesco D’ Andria, “The Ploutonion of Hierapolis in light of recent research (2013-2017),” Journal of Roman Archaeology 31 (2018) 128, n. 102, the term is an English translation “of the Italian ‘offerto di risarcimento,’ whose purpose was to recover the order that the actions of the gods had disturbed.”