What animals were like (Archaeology of People) Part 4

Mythic dimensions

I have argued so far that a rationalised, abstract and distanced view of animals is limiting. Animals were complex symbols, and as such an important component of fluid senses of identity. I have also stressed, in trying to reach a sense of what animals were like in early agricultural communities, the continued significance of wild creatures. As well as binding people very closely to most parts of their landscape, wild creatures may have been one vehicle for the continuation of older attitudes of respect for and closeness to the partners of a unified world. In the final section of this topic, I want to consider the possible mythic dimensions of animals a little further.I will suggest that as well as having an important role in representing such themes as routines and physical existence, sociality, abundance and fertility, domesticated animals may have had in part a significant mythical role. But this may not have been quite as in earlier times. I will also argue that there is some evidence for shifts in how hunter-gatherer populations represented creatures in the phase of contact and transition, perhaps affected by new practices and attitudes.

The literature on the place of animals and creatures in general in the myths, especially the creation myths, of hunter-gatherer people is certainly abundant, and can be seen as part of a broad set of relationships that have been characterised as based on trust.The example is given by Eliade (1968, 194—5) of the Aboriginal Karadjeri origin myth of two brothers who walk, talk and name things, to bring the world into existence; they emerge from the earth first as dingos, before turning into human giants and later transforming themselves into giant snakes. On the other side of the world, on the north-west coast of America, particular animals seem often to have stood for particular stories and specific traits and virtues, though myth need not be seen as fixed or static (Hymes 1990). The Nuu-chah-nulth of Vancouver Island respected animals as equals or even superior beings, and thought that animals had once been humans.For the Tikigaq people of Point Hope, Alaska, a central myth was that the point itself, jutting out into the strait up and down which migrated the whales important to their existence, had itself once been a whale. The death of the primal whale, at the hands of a primal shamanic harpooner, made what followed possible, and the whale lived on as the point, part body and part spirit (Lowenstein 1993).


By contrast, the example has already been given earlier in this topic of how sacred Himba cattle serve as a means of access to the ancestors and represent them, but they are not in themselves the ancestors (Crandall 1998). Among the Nuer, the ancestors of clans were thought of as having possessed cattle herds (Evans-Pritchard 1956, 258), but there is no evidence that cattle themselves, whatever their other importance, were venerated or regarded as guardian spirits (Evans-Pritchard 1956, 249). Could this different sort of emphasis seen in the ethnographies of some cattle keepers be transferred also to the archaeological situations under discussion? Most of the relevant archaeological examples discussed so far have been to do with animals transformed after slaughter, butchery and consumption into bones and deposited as such in various ways in different contexts. These bones may have stood for a very wide range of notions, as has been argued, but a mythic dimension is not immediately apparent. There may be some partial exceptions. Cattle skulls were used as commemorative symbols in the ditch at Menneville (Hachem et al. 1998). Later, a close association with a funerary or ancestral tradition is seen in the presence of cattle skulls under southern British long barrows, either on their own as at Beckhampton Road (Ashbee et al. 1979) or with human remains as at Fussell’s Lodge (Ashbee 1966). Since cattle skulls also occur in the ditches of contemporary enclosures, as at Windmill Hill ,there may have been some blurring of distinctions between previously separate categories. Cattle slaughtered and deposited in wet places in southern Scandinavia might be another example of animals given special treatment in their own right, but on the one hand these could also be seen as sacrifices mediating between the human and spirit world (Tilley 1996, 184) and on the other hand animal remains have often been found to accompany human remains in similar contexts (Bennike 1999). It is again ambiguous whether animals were the principal focus.


The final way in which the possible mythic dimension of domesticated animals might be revealed is in representations of creatures in the phase of contact between indigenous people and new populations and practices. Two principal examples suggest themselves, from either end of the geographical range considered in this topic. In the Danube Gorges, an indigenous population had existed if not flourished since at least the beginning of the Holocene. A tradition of building and burial reached its peak in the later seventh millennium BC, just at the period when other populations, which used pottery and domesticates including principally sheep and goats, had begun to appear in the wider region. Indigenous people hunted many different kinds of animals and fished in the Danube. Remains of creatures from this range were incorporated centrally into built structures and burials. The chronology is complex and practices varied through time (Radovanovic 1996) but a few brief examples from Lepenski Vir serve to remind us of the ubiquity of animal remains among the living and dead. A-settings of stone beside the central focus of the hearth mimic animal and/or human jaws, and there were deposits of fishbone regularly on the west side of hearths, with red deer parts on the stone platforms at the back of the hearths. Antlers were deposited with some burials. In one burial from Lepenski Vir 1,5 the extended skeleton of an adult man had the cranium of a woman on its left shoulder, an auroch skull on the right shoulder, and a deer skull by the right hand, with its antlers nearby (Radovanovic 1996, fig. 4.3). Decorated boulders were first given abstract motifs, but in later phases (from Radovanovic’s area phase 4, of the later seventh millennium BC) became, in our terms, semi-representational, with faces that appear part-human and part-fish. These were normally placed within structures, at the back, front and sides of hearths. The most monumental and figurative belong to a concentration in house XLIV at the beginning of Lepenski Vir II (Radovanovic 1996, 157, and fig. 3.62). Srejovic (1972, 122) identified those creatures with faces as deities or as mythic and ancestral fishy beings of the river. Radovanovic (1997) made two important further connections. She suggested first that the creatures in question can specifically be identified as or linked to sturgeon, from details of the scaly ridges on backs and the top of their heads. Such beluga can reach a length of 4—5 m. These are migratory, and came up the Danube each year. In the later levels of Lepenski Vir, no bones of such large fish have been found. The second connection lies in the fact that the majority of the later burials of Lepenski Vir lie parallel to the river (Radovanovic 1996, 187, 224), facing downstream, suggesting that the dead were placed so as to look down the river for the annual return of the ancestral fish.

One more connection might be added. The argument is circumstantial, based on context and the suggested chronology of development. Though the Gorges phenomenon began before the appearance of a new way of life in the wider region, its most accentuated features belong to the likely phase of contact with a changing outside world. In this sense, much of what happened in the Gorges was a reaction to what was happening elsewhere. It might be argued that such a reaction was an attempt to maintain and heighten indigenous identity in the face of the threat of new practices, but it is also becoming clear, not least from the fact that pottery occurred even in lower levels at Lepenski Vir, that this did not happen in isolation. There was presumably therefore a degree of knowledge within the Gorges network of new practices elsewhere, and more or less contemporary sites can be found within a range of about 100 km. Though Srejovic and Radovanovic have drawn attention to the fish-like creatures, no one has directly questioned why fish should have taken this central role, other than by stressing the obviously important and carefully placed position of Lepenski Vir (and other sites) by the river. May it be that this was in some kind of opposition to the importance of domesticated animals among the new practices in the changing world around the Gorges? The contrasts could hardly have been greater, between sheep and goats, visible, audible, often on the move, living in herds, and profanely killed on a regular basis by their human keepers, and beluga, sensed as much as easily seen in the river, under the water, difficult of access, awe-inspiring, and normally left alone by people. The beluga, to follow Srejovic and Radovanovic, may have had or acquired a mythic dimension, resting in part on their annual return. Sheep and goats too may have had a place in stories and origin or creation myths as creatures not from the region. What countered them was not only red deer or aurochs, from the region, but something also from the outside.

This example is of course problematic. My argument assumes that the decorated boulders had an overwhelmingly central importance, whereas it could be countered that these were only one part of a varied and rapidly changing worldview. It is also hard to bring beluga and sheep and goats directly into comparison from the actual archaeological evidence. My second example is also problematic, but may provide a more immediate juxtaposition. I have suggested elsewhere that the striking Mane Rutual-type motif found on a small series of decorated menhirs in coastal Brittany, which has previously been interpreted as an axe, an axe-plough or a plough, could be in fact a representation of a whale.Such menhirs could belong to the beginning of the Neolithic in Brittany, perhaps in the later fifth millennium BC (Figure 4.6). There is no need to repeat the whole argument here, but some points can be restated. The alternatives of axe, axe-plough or plough are not convincing, since this is a semi-representational style, especially as seen in the combined example of the originally joining pieces found separately in La Table des Marchand and Gavrinis. The distribution is coastal. A newly discovered decorated menhir, inland from Nantes, has an abstract motif (Scarre and Raux 2000). The motif is often large, especially on the Grand Menhir Brise and La Table des Marchand-Gavrinis examples. It seems, at least in those cases, to have been designed to impress, and in the latter example is larger than the other things represented on the menhir. The general layout and relative proportions of the motif can be taken to resemble a whale, though admittedly the recurrent loop on the top side is hard to explain as a dorsal fin or even a spout.

What is of particular interest in the context of this broader discussion is the juxtaposition on the La Table des Marchand-Gavrinis example of the Mane Rutual motif with two four-legged animals, a possible crook, a definite (as well as smaller) axe, and two small crescentic motifs. Though small, these crescents could nonetheless be significant, perhaps part of a symbolism of sky, earth and underworld (Boujot et al. 1998). The scene has been taken (Kinnes and Hibbs 1989, 163; Bailloud et al. 1995) as a unified representation of central features of an agricultural way of life, with plough (the Mane Rutual motif) and corn (the crook motif) as well as a cow and a sheep (on the basis of differences in the representation of the two sets of horns). If the whale or some other interpretation is allowed, a different picture emerges. The whale is going one way, the animals and the axe (as defined by the direction of its blade) another. It is as though, in a way similar to that suggested in the context of the Danube Gorges, different creatures from two worlds have been brought together. In the indigenous context, as seen in the burial settings in the middens of Teviec and Hoedic, red deer were particularly significant, their antlers placed above some burials and their teeth used as ornaments; stable isotopic analysis of human bone from Teviec and Hoedic suggests an important role for marine resources in the diet (Schulting 1998; Schulting and Richards 2001). Even if the whale motif is rejected, it is hard to deny to the decorated menhirs not only a symbolic but also a mythic dimension, and the presence of the four-legged animals in such a context is just as important.

What might the various motifs have stood for? Our response must depend in part on a view of who is most likely to have put up and decorated these impressive constructions. One plausible answer, though there are many uncertainties not least with the chronology, is that the menhirs were put up by an essentially indigenous population in contact with new practices and perhaps incoming people. Another possibility is that they were part of an alternative ideology brought in from the outside (Sherratt 1995b). If we took the former view, the various motifs could stand for a series of ideas or figures: for sea and land and, remembering the small crescents, perhaps also sky; for old and new; for wild and tame; and for natural and cultural.

Mythic representations?

Figure 4.6 Mythic representations?

We might see these as elements of a single myth, perhaps something to do with the coming of domesticated animals, or, following James Weiner,as a succession of metaphors, contrasting by turns the permanence of the whale and the sea, the arrival of domesticated animals and human control, and the enduring forces of sky and even an underworld. As Weiner has noted in relation to the Foi, many interpretations could emerge from such a succession, and it is hardly necessary to insist on a single meaning. Finally, as is well known, many menhirs seem to have been dismantled or broken, some to be incorporated into other, different constructions. These included much more abstract traditions of decoration (Shee Twohig 1981). Though a case has been made for ‘remembering by forgetting’ (Bradley 2002, 36—41) it is as though the mythic force of menhirs had deliberately to be broken.

Two other pieces of evidence, finally, more certainly from phases of contact, also point to the impact that domesticated cattle may have had among indigenous people in north-west Europe. In front of the south facade of the primary phase of the long cairn of Er Grah, close to where the Grand Menhir Brise originally stood and where the La Table des Marchand-Gavrinis menhir, as well as other smaller ones now recognised only by stone holes, may also have stood, a pair of domesticated cattle were found in a pit (Tresset and Vigne, forthcoming; Anne Tresset, pers. comm.; cf. Tresset 2000). Radiocarbon determinations suggest a date in the late sixth and early fifth millennia BC, presumably a context belonging to the Late Mesolithic though conceivably also to the earliest Neolithic of the region. There is no other certain sign from the middens of Teviec and Hoedic, dated to approximately the same time, for use of domesticates in the indigenous context. It may be significant, if the Er Grah deposit is an indigenous one, that these animals were not consumed. Rather, they may have been sacrificed as something both new and conceptually powerful. Even further afield, something similar may have taken place on the south-west coast of Ireland. At Ferriter’s Cove, in a later fifth millennium BC context of probably mobile existence, with short stays seen in a series of thin layers and very slight structures, a few cattle bones were found; a sheep’s tooth also found could not be certainly dated (Woodman et al. 1999). There is no evidence for indigenous cattle in early postglacial Ireland. Given the date (though note reservations connected to a possible marine reservoir effect: Tresset 2000, 27), and assuming that these were not remains of aurochs brought over from western Britain, these were probably domesticated animals from the mainland of continental north-west Europe. Since the remains consist of only seven pieces from leg and foot, it is not clear whether these animals were brought over alive, and it might perhaps be just as likely that a preserved joint, or even bones themselves, were brought back from a long-range boat trip. It is also significant that the experience was not quickly repeated. Among a population living by sea fishing and by hunting wild pig, domesticates were still not adopted for some centuries. Perhaps, in this kind of context, the consolidation of change required a more sustained exposure to myth and story, as well as to a different practical logic.

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