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'Hybrid animals' unearthed at pre-Roman site in Dorset

Archaeologists have unearthed numerous hybrid animals from a site dubbed Duropolis near Winterborne Kingston in Dorset, which were carefully created by the ancient people over 2,000 years ago and buried in store pits beneath their houses.

'Hybrid animals' unearthed at pre-Roman site in Dorset
Sheep skeleton with two heads - its own very fragmentary one 
and a bull's one [Credit: Mike Russell]
The ‘monsters’ include sheep with an extra head and a cow with a horse’s head, which were probably made to placate the gods.

Miles Russell, co-director of the Big Dig, told MailOnline that the animal parts were carefully placed in storage pits between seven and 10 ft (two and three metres) deep that were usually used for storing grain and other important supplies beneath the entrance of houses.

‘Such practices have been hinted at elsewhere in the UK but not at this intensity,’ he said.

The hybrids include cow with a horse’s legs, a sheep with a bull’s head placed at its rear end and a horse with a cow’s horn protruding from its forehead, The Independent reported.

'Hybrid animals' unearthed at pre-Roman site in Dorset
This image shows the excavation of a pig burial 
[Credit: Mike Russell]
While the bodies of pigs, dogs and sheep were generally left intact with extra parts added, those of horses and cows tend to be more mixed up.

For example, the team has found two examples of a horse’s lower jaw bone added to a jawless cow’s skull.

Dr Russell explained that the people would have sacrificed valuable animals and butchered them, placing chunks of their bodies and limbs next to each other in the pits to create the hybrids ‘presumably as some kind of offering’.

‘In our minds, it’s bizarre and wasteful food-wise,’ he said, but demonstrates the importance of the ritual.

'Hybrid animals' unearthed at pre-Roman site in Dorset
In one pit, archaeologists found a female skeleton bearing marks suggesting she 
was sacrificed. She was buried on a bed of animals including cattle, sheep, a dog
 and a horse, which had been arranged to mirror her own position so that 
her head rested on theirs [Credit: Mike Russell]
It’s not known whether the animals were stitched together or not, because organic material such as string would not survive in the ground for over 2,000 years.

In one particularly unusual pit, archaeologists found a female skeleton bearing marks suggesting she was sacrificed.

She was buried on a bed of animals including cattle, sheep, a dog and a horse, which had been arranged to mirror her own position so that her head rested on theirs, for example.

Examples of Celtic human sacrifices are rare and there is no written documentary evidence from the people, but the Roman complained of the practice then they first invaded Britain.

'Hybrid animals' unearthed at pre-Roman site in Dorset
This photo shows a horse skull with cow body parts 
[Credit: Mike Russell]
While it’s unknown what the purpose of the unusual sacrifices was exactly, Dr Russell said: ‘Perhaps they [the Iron Age people] were asking for good crops or health for their animals.’

Because so many examples have been found, it’s possible the offerings were an annual event, he explained, to ensure a good or better harvest the following year.

Relatively little is known about the religious beliefs of this period and the collection of discoveries goes some way to filling in gaps.

‘To find leftover religious practice is extremely rare,’ and evidence of a human sacrifice suggests there may be some truth in Roman reports, Dr Russell explained.

'Hybrid animals' unearthed at pre-Roman site in Dorset
A circular storage pit bearing the bones of three scarificed pigs 
[Credit: Mike Russell]
It’s also possible that evidence of hybrid creatures means that like other ancient civilisations, the Celts had myths of monstrous animals too.

He told The Independent: ‘The sacrifice of so many animals and the unusual treatment of their bones is likely to shed totally new light on Iron Age belief systems - and may suggest that the Ancient Britons had beliefs or mythologies which involved hybredized animals, just as the ancient Greeks had.’

‘Most ancient cultures have hybrid animals,’ Dr Russell said. ‘The Celts didn’t leave any literary evidence so we can’t say [if they did too].’

But the experimental horse/cow hybrids may suggest the Celts had a horse/cow god, he added.

'Hybrid animals' unearthed at pre-Roman site in Dorset
The remains of one sheep with the legs of another is shown 
[Credit: Mike Russell]
Based on the evidence unearthed so far and a geophysical survey, the team of archaeologists believe the settlement was made up of between 150 and 200 round houses and that the town flourished from 100 BC to 10BC.

The township is one of the largest ever discovered in Britain. It’s thought the inhabitants were members of an early version of ancient Dorset’s Durotriges tribe.

As well as the macabre pits and 16 Iron Age round houses, the experts also found evidence of an Iron Age metalworks and pottery.

Dr Russell said: ‘We’ve exposed remains of 16 roundhouses in the two trenches we’ve dug.

'Hybrid animals' unearthed at pre-Roman site in Dorset
This image shows the remains of a cow skull with a horse jaw 
[Credit: Mike Russell]
‘They are pre-Roman house structures, the last that inhabitants would have been living in before the Romans arrived. We know that there are around 200 of these across this area, so we’ve got ourselves a prehistoric town or proto-urban settlement.

‘What we’ve discovered is extremely significant for the whole of Southern Britain because in the past archaeologists have tended to look at really obvious sites, like the big hill-fort of Maiden Castle, near Dorchester.

‘What we have here is an extensive open settlement, not a hill fort, so it wasn’t visible as a settlement from the earthwork on the landscape.

‘What we’ve discovered is one of the earliest and largest open settlements in Britain.’

Paul Cheetham, a co-director on the dig, added: ‘What this suggests is that there are other big centres of occupation before the Roman arrival, this is a big open settlement, probably one of the first that the Romans encountered when they arrived.

‘It exposes the myth that everyone lived in protected hill forts – these inhabitants lived in this fertile farmland, away from the traditional hill forts we are all used to hearing about.’

Author: Sarah Griffiths | Source: Daily Mail Online [July 13, 2015]
TANN

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