24 July, 2015
Head to Head: Sacrifice V’s Acoustics. Paul Duffy discusses some differing interpretations for a horse skull deposit at Haynestown, Co. Louth.
Reading Colm Moriarty’s (2015) recent discussion of buried horse skulls within medieval and early modern clay floors revived a memory which had lain dormant for several years. During excavations at Haynestown in 2008 I had a strange encounter of the equine kind which raised many interesting questions relating to medieval superstition and residual pagan foundation rites. The excavation crew, directed by Gill McLoughlin, watched in astonishment as a disarticulated horse skull, minus the mandible, was unearthed on the base of a shallow pit, seemingly deliberately placed on a flat stone.
The pit, situated near the summit of a low hill on its south facing slope, comprised a roughly square cut. It measured 1.10m northeast–southwest by 1.35m northwest–southeast with a depth of 0.26m and had vertical sides and a flat base. It contained a single fill with moderate inclusions of charcoal, occasional sea shell (mussel) and the horse skull. Four iron objects including two medieval/post medieval horseshoes and a fish hook were also retrieved from this fill.
As Moriarty and other writers have noted, the retrieval of horse skulls from clay floors, beneath flagstones and within niches in house foundations, is a reasonably widespread phenomenon. This practice is well attested on a wider European scale and the questions that this custom raises in Ireland are equally pertinent elsewhere. The focus of discussion in the existing literature relates to two differing interpretations for this practice, i.e. representing a ritual or a non-ritual motive.
The ritual explanation involves the use of a horse skull as a sacrificial deposit placed in the foundation layer of a new structure. The horse first appears within building deposits in Northern Europe during the Bronze Age, becoming more common in the beginning of the Iron Age. The Iron Age trend veers towards depositing only specific parts of the horse; namely the skull together with leg bones and perhaps the tail (Hukantaival 2007, 351). Discussing the phenomenon of horse burials in Norway, Iceland, Scotland and Ireland, Maeve Sikora has pointed out that horses are prominent symbols of fertility in Scandinavian mythology. Stallion fights were held in spring, and were believed to secure a good harvest (Sikora 2004, 87). It has also been suggested that the victorious stallion may have been sacrificed to the fertility god Freyr following the contest.
These considerations add to the logic that skulls placed within the clay floor or within the foundations of buildings were thought to bring luck or even abundance. This interpretation has been strengthened by ethnographic evidence extending into the 20th century (Moriarty 2015). There was, however, no evidence at Haynestown that linked the pit in question with a building. There was no indication that the pit was within or even close to a structure. Regardless, the central position of the horse skull in the pit and the use of a stone (that if found in a human burial would likely be termed a cushion/pillow stone!) to rest the skull upon would seem to point towards an act of ritual significance.
The second interpretation which is often viewed as a practical, non-ritual, reason for this phenomenon is that skulls were placed under floors to create an echo. Ethnographic data from Ireland, Britain and Southern Scandinavia attests to this practice in relation to floors that were in use for dancing. The voids within the skull cavities would have produced a particular sound underfoot. The acoustic skulls were also placed in churches, houses and, in Scandinavia especially, in threshing- barns (Hukantaival 2007, 355). It was considered important that the sound of threshing carried far across the land (ibid). Could a loud sound while threshing have been sought after for a protective purpose? In many cultures loud noises are considered to expel evil forces (ibid). Perhaps the ‘non-ritual’ interpretation for the burial of these skulls retains at its core a magico-religious function.
In this manner could the pit at Haynestown have represented the centre of a medieval threshing floor? Threshing floors are known from the old Irish law texts (Kelly 1997, 159). Zadoks reports that “The threshing floor should be positioned in some elevated spot so that the wind can sweep over it with a slight elevation in the centre so that rain runs off it” (2013, 73). This would broadly correspond to the situation of the site at Haynestown. Furthermore that cereal cultivation was occurring in the area, immediately proximate to the pit, was attested to by the retrieval of a plough pebble from the fill of an adjacent pit; and also from the excavation of a number of furrows which traversed the area.
From the above evidence, it is possible to imagine that the harvest was once gathered, laid out and thrashed on this low south-facing hillside. Did the rhythmic thump of wooden flails pounding the earth, amplified by the resounding horse skull below, once ring out over Haynestown? Was the resulting sound believed to ward off evil spirits and protect the grain from corruption? Is this all a bit far-fetched? About as far-fetched as burying a horse’s head in a shallow grave on a Co. Louth hillside I’d say…
Hukantaival, S. 2009 ‘Horse Skulls and ‘Alder Horse’: The Horse as a Depositional Sacrifice in Buildings’, Archaeologia Baltica, Vol. 11 Horses in Ethnoarchaeology and Folklore he Horse and Man in European Antiquity Klaipėda: Klaipėda University Press, 350–356.
Kelly, F. 1997 Early Irish Farming: A Study Based Mainly on the Law-Texts of the 7th and 8th Centuries Ad Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.
McLoughlin, G. 2012 Archaeological Excavation at Haynestown-Haggardstown Dundalk, Co. Louth, unpublished report on behalf of Groveview Builders Ltd.
Moriarty, C. 2015 Buried Horse Skulls: Folklore and Superstition in Early Modern Ireland http://irisharchaeology.ie/2015/02/buried-horse-skulls-folklore-and-superstition-in-early-modern-ireland/
Sikora, M. 2004 Diversity in Viking Age Horse Burial: A Comparative Study of Norway, Iceland, Scotland and Ireland. The Journal of Irish Archaeology, 12/13, 87–109.
Zadoks, J. C. 2013 Crop Protection in Medieval Agriculture: Studies in pre-modern organic agriculture Leiden: Sidestone Press.