Iron Age site in Europe unearths rituals of animal sacrifice

An Iron Age site in western Spain offers rare archaeological insights into ritualised animal sacrifice considered “extraordinary for European Iron Age contexts”.

Researchers from Spain analysed skeletal remains – some 6770 bones corresponding to at least 52 animals – deposited in the courtyard of Casas del Turuñuelo, an Iron Age construction in Badajoz, Spain.

The zooarchaeological analysis indicates repeated animal sacrifices took place at the site towards the end of the 5th Century BCE. 

Archaeological sites in the Mediterranean containing evidence of animal sacrifices are rare from the Iron Age, despite being referred to in some written sources.

Skeletal remains and associated material from the Turuñuelo site suggests evidence of certain rituals associated with the sacrifices. These relate to selection of animal species, as well as age and sex, how the beasts were arranged, and the use of fire.

The analysis reveals at least 41 of the animals sacrificed were horses or other equids (equidae is the taxonomic family of horses and related animals, including asses, zebras, and many other species known only from fossils). The other remains included 6 cows, 4 pigs and 1 dog.

“The deposition of unconsumed horses in the Turuñuelo courtyard is unique and has few parallels,” the authors write. Most of the horse remains were adult males aged up to 10 years old.

Cows were the second most common animal, comprising 4 males, 1 female and one animal undertermined.

The 4 pigs were predominantly female, and fetal remains suggest one animal was pregnant.

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The courtyard of Casas del Turuñuelo site (Badajoz, Spain). Iron Age Tartessian Culture / Credit: Construyendo Tarteso, CC-BY 4.0

The paper published in PLOS ONE describes 3 phases of ritual protocols based on the age of material. In the first 2 phases, skeletons were mostly complete. The ritual use of fire is suggested by the presence of charcoal and charred organic matter.

During Phase 2 animals were accompanied by luxury goods from the eastern Mediterranean, including ointment jars, Macedonian bowls and a sculpture of Athenian Pentelic marble.

While fewer animal sacrifices took place in Phase 3, these show signs of butchery, suggesting human consumption accompanied the rituals.

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