The horse versus the rest: Depictions of equids in the 18th dynasty of ancient Egypt

This blog post is written by the wonderful Lonneke Delpeut, who is an expert on horses in ancient Egypt. We met at a conference in Stavanger, with my favourite title so far: Horses, moving. Those two words encapsulate my subject and my approach very neatly, with horses the subject (and of course other equids, let’s not forget) and ‘moving’ expressing a sense of agency and intention – horses moving and being moved. Lonneke presented a fascinating paper on images of Egyptian horses, with an important distinction between what is being depicted and how it is being depicted. She kindly agreed to contribute with a post here, and I have very much been looking forward to it, so here we go


by Lonneke Delpeut

With the introduction of the horse in Egypt at the beginning of the Eighteenth dynasty (1550 B.C.), the artists and craftsmen responsible for making the beautiful depictions in tombs and temples had a new animal to display. They had to transform a three-dimensional being into something flat. Luckily, the artisans had plenty of experience depicting all kinds of four-legged animals, so the horse might have been new, but the appearance of it would be inspired by other animals. There are other equids that had been known in Egypt, namely the zebra (Equus grevyi and Equus quagga) as well as the wild ass, the Equus asinus. Two types of donkeys had been known in Egypt since the Old Kingdom, the time of the pyramids, namely the domesticated donkey (Equus Africanus asinus) and its ancestor that was still hunted, namely the Equus Africanus. Lastly, the horse was introduced relatively late, completing the collection of equids in Egypt. Since donkeys had been depicted in Egypt for a very long time, and one had to draw the horse based on something, the first depictions of the horse look a lot like donkeys. Most prominently alike is the way their legs are displayed in exactly the same: all four on the ground but apart from each other. This is how the Egyptians indicated movement by four-legged animals; the artist had to be sure that the observer knew the animals were moving forward.

Most important for the Egyptian artist was for the observer to identify the concept he was trying to convey correctly. This means that beside the shared characteristics between donkeys and horses, the Egyptians had to put in some horse-specific features too. These features in the beginning of the Eighteenth dynasty were especially important since the horse was new; in Egypt as an animal, but also as a depiction. One of these features was the colour of the horses’ coat. We see that many horses show white (which means grey) and chestnut coat colours at the beginning of the Eighteenth dynasty (fig. 1), which distinguishes them from donkeys, who are always grey with white. We know that the Egyptians were well aware of the fact that white-coloured horses are not truly white, since in many cases the snout is depicted as grey and their eyes are brown. We can even tell the difference between young and old horses, since in one Theban tomb, the tomb of Menkheperreseneb (TT86) the manes are depicted a darker kind of orange (a sign of a young horse) than the other pair of horses. Another factor that shows the pictorial difference between donkeys are horses are the manes that are depicted flat in the neck. This is a feature that changes further on in the Eighteenth dynasty. These features are horse-specific to distinguish the horse from the donkey.

Fig. 1. Syrians bringing horses, Tomb of Rekhmire. The Met.

Another difference between donkeys and horses is the work they do. Donkeys are often depicted as beasts of burden, and even though horses pull chariots, they are only used as a mode of transportation for human beings. This is contrary to donkeys, which were used to carry heavy bags of grain, they are used to plant seeds by walking them into the ground and are never shown depicted in front of chariots. The only other equid that is allowed in front of a chariot, is a hybrid. It is uncertain whether the Egyptian hybrids were mules or hinnies, but they are most certainly hybrids since they show characteristics of both horses and donkeys. In fig. 2 for example, we see a depiction from the tomb of Nebamun, now in the British Museum in London. The upper part shows two horses in front of a chariot, and the lower part shows two hybrids in front of a chariot. The coat colour and the tail belong to donkey-like features while the chariot, the ears and the size belong to horse-like features. The fact that they are depicted so closely to each other is no coincidence; the observer is challenged to immediately tell the difference between the horses and the hybrids.

Fig. 2. Wall painting from Tomb of Nebanum, Thebes. The British Museum.

Another significant difference visible in this scene is the behaviour of the animals and their grooms. The horses have their heads raised, their feet seem restless, and the groom holds the reins tightly with both hands, standing behind the chariot. The hybrids however are eating from a trough that is standing on the ground, and their groom is sitting on the chariot with his back to the animals. He had such confidence in the calm, resting hybrids that he can afford to not pay constant attention to them. This is in strong contrast with the horses’ groom, who cannot afford to let them out of his sight. This partly shows the actual difference in behaviour between horses and hybrids, but it is also a feature that helps the observer distinguish the hybrids from the horses. Another important difference is that the horses seem to have been castrated, since only the phallus sheath is visible, while the hybrids still show all possible masculine gender markers: they are stallions, without a doubt.

The Egyptians had to be sure the observer identified the horses as such. At the beginning of the Eighteenth dynasty, they did this by making sure the colour and the manes were depicted differently from those of donkeys, but as time goes by, the horse starts to develop its own pictorial characteristics. Not only are they depicted differently, they are also used differently, as donkeys are never depicted pulling chariots. This so to say ‘privilege’ was mainly reserved for our beloved noble animals: the horse.


If you want to learn more, here’s some recommended reading to get you started:

J. Baines, ‘Theories and Universals of Representation’ in: Art History (vol. 8, no. 1; March 1985).
M. Bibby, ‘The Arrival of the Horse in Egypt: New Approaches and a Hypothesis’, in: R. Ives, D. Lines, C. Naunton (eds), Current Research in Egyptology III: December 2011 (BAR IS 1192; Oxford, 2003).
J. Clutton-Brock, P. Raulwing, ‘The Buhen Horse: Fifty Years after its Discovery (1958-2008) (Journal of Egyptian History 2.1-1; 2009).
D. Laboury, Tradition and Creativity: Inter-iconicity, in: T. Gillen, (Re)productive Traditions in Ancient Egypt (AegLeo 10; Liege, 2017).
A.R. Schulman, ‘Egyptian Representations of Horsemen and Riding in the New Kingdom’ (Journal of Near Eastern Studies 16, 1957).

Chariots of Fire and modern-day carriage driving

Last week I visited the lovely little town of Moulton, just a few miles east of Newmarket. There I went to meet Lesley Young, who is a veterinary cardiologist and who does carriage driving with her two ponies, Roscoe and Grumpy. As Lesley opened the door, I hear her two dogs barking inside, defending the kitchen, apparently. Almost inevitably, horses and dogs go together. Even in the Bronze Age of the Near East and Greece there is a link between the two animals. Or perhaps more accurately, the people that interact with horses also tend to have dogs.

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Moulton Packhorse Bridge

Lesley took me to visit Roscoe and Grumpy, and to see how she trains carriage driving. Roscoe and Grumpy are both small ponies with big personalities and a charming amount of cheek. They brought back memories of several wilful ponies and battles of stubbornness. Even so, they were both incredibly well-behaved, especially considering Roscoe’s narrow escape from being eaten by various roots and pieces of plastic (which have claimed many victims in the past). Roscoe is a strong white pony who clearly loves the work of the carriage. Grumpy, who earned his name not through moodiness but by being one of seven, is an older gentleman of chestnut disposition. He suffers from laminitis, which is partly kept in check by him still being active, but the work is of course kept much lighter for him. It is clear that they both enjoy pulling the carriage and cantering across the fields with it.

The carriage used by Lesley is a four-wheeler, which seems to be common for competitive carriage driving. It is a bit heavier than one with two wheels, but also much easier to drive. Two wheels require constant balancing, is harder on the horse and topples over more readily. This is an important point to keep in mind when thinking of the Late Bronze Age chariots used across the Eastern Mediterranean. They would have needed a lot of training and skill to drive, and one can only guess at the number of accidents that happened. Today, there are safety measures every step of the way, but accidents do still occur, and they can be quite serious. So training and experience in how the horses might react to situations become even more important.

But to return to the carriage: Lesley’s can be transformed into either a one-pony or two-pony carriage. A different system is needed in each scenario. The main difference is that one pony requires a pole on either side of the pony, while for two you have a pole in between them that they are both attached to – which is also the system we find in the Bronze Age, where there are no definite examples of one-equid vehicles. 

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The carriage set up for one pony

We started by taking Roscoe out on his own. The harness is a rather complicated criss-cross of straps, buckles and reins. The front consists of the girth around the belly, neckstrap and breastcollar. The weight of the carriage is pulled primarily on the shoulders. This is an arrangement more suitable for horses than the broad collar that is more commonly used for draft cattle. The broad, short strong neck of cattle makes the collar work well. It is also the kind of harness we see in the earliest Mesopotamian depictions of equids in front of wheeled vehicles, and indeed with especially large cold-blooded breeds of horses today. The best example is perhaps our lovely Standard of Ur. Later depictions show something in between the modern and the third millennium examples, where the collar seems to have been lowered a bit, with less pressure on the airways of the horse.

The two reins are guided through rings on either side of Roscoe on both the girth and the neckstrap to Roscoe’s bit. In Bronze Age images, the reins go through just one rein ring which is centrally placed over the equids’ withers, also acting as a divider (remember the beautiful rein ring from Ur?). The remainder of Roscoe’s harness does not appear in the Bronze Age as far as we know. It consists of a crupper, and breeching, which helps work as a backing element that prevents the carriage from hitting the ponies when stopping and allows backwards movement.

The bridle has a safety measure which was known already in the Early Bronze Age: blinkers. Blinkers are small covers that shield the horse’s view to the sides and behind and thus prevent it from spooking and running wild. Horses are often most easily spooked by things from behind them, and the usual instinct is then to run, which can of course be very dangerous with a vehicle attached. Nice examples of the depiction of blinkers appear on Egyptian wall reliefs, as for example on one from Amarna shown below.

Once we’d made our way to the outdoor arena, Lesley practiced the dressage test she usually does with Roscoe when competing. I only recently discovered this is a discipline with carriages, and I find it very fascinating. The principles are surprisingly similar to dressage riding, with the way the body is held and tensed affecting the direction of the horse and carriage. As an aid partly substituting the legs, Lesley could use the whip to steer the pony. The whip is thus not used as a way of lashing or punishing the horse, but to steer and control the pace with slight nudges.

The way the reins are held has a wonderful parallel in certain ancient images. Lesley showed me how she would hold both reins in one hand, steering basically by twisting the wrist one way or the other. The other hand would instead hold the whip. The overall impression is strikingly similar to some ancient images, for example one of the ‘miniature marvels’ from the last blog:

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Hands and reins

We then took Roscoe and Grumpy out as a pair. Apart from the central pole, there are two main differences which are of interest in relation to the Bronze Age evidence. Firstly, even though there are two ponies, there are still only two reins. This is achieved by each rein splitting into two down the middle and one attached to the right side of each pony, the other to the left. This may explain the appearance of only a few reins on depictions like that on the Standard of Ur, but once the two-wheeled war chariot comes into play, two reins were sometimes used for each horse.

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Grumpy and Roscoe doing team work

Secondly, the use of the two ponies with Lesley’s carriage requires extra ballast. I got to be the ballast for Roscoe and Grumpy. That was simply fantastic! The backstepper (as it’s properly called, or groom) not only helps prevent tipping in general, but especially if the carriage is going at some speed round corners and the weight needs to be moved to keep the balance. This would have applied even more to those ancient war chariots with two wheels, and the second person often depicted next to or behind the driver may very well have had this kind of function.

Ivory game box from Enkomi (Cyprus) showing charioteer and archer, doubling as backstepper. British Museum.

Modern-day carriage driving is of course not the same as in third and second millennium BC Mesopotamia, Egypt or Eastern Mediterranean, but there is much to be learnt from it. I am most grateful to Lesley for letting me tag along and meet her, Roscoe and Grumpy.


Miniature Marvels

One of the first things that drew me to archaeology was these tiny little objects called seal stones. Occurring in almost any imaginable colour, each contains its own secret, revealed through contact with the earthly substance of clay. Every seal tells a story.

If you’re at all familiar with any of the regions of the ancient eastern Mediterranean, you would surely have encountered these little marvels. In the Near East, we find them most commonly in the shape of cylinders until the first millennium BC, while scarabs are common in Egypt, and stamp lentoid variations in the Aegean – and in typical mix-it-all-up manner, Cyprus has a bit of everything.



Seals are tiny objects engraved with a motif. They were used to secure – or authenticate – containers and correspondences. We find their ancient impressions on lumps of clay which were once used on vessels when shipped, and then broken when received or opened. They are also sometimes rolled out or stamped on cuneiform tablets. The motif would identify the owner of the seal or their representative. Sometimes it was accompanied by a small inscription, usually naming the owner and perhaps their family descent, status or occupation. Owners were often royalty or other high status individuals, but occasionally we get glimpses into more mundane occupations, as for example a cook and a nurse at ancient Urkesh in Syria (albeit a cook and a nurse working for the royal family).

So seals appear to have been primarily an administrative tool used by fairly wealthy individuals. But they could also function as amulets, have a talismanic effect and be worn as jewellery (nearly all seals are pierced so a string could be pulled through it). Seals were in most cases valuable items, not only due to the craftsmanship involved, but also the material they were made of. Various kinds of precious stones were used to make seals, including agate, lapis lazuli, quartz, obsidian, hematite and carnelian. The veining and semi-translucency of some would add to their magic effect. Examples in gold and other metals are also known, the Mycenaean and Minoan gold signet rings being the most famous. Others had gold caps added to the ends.

Since the seal is meant to be pressed or rolled onto unfired clay(1), they are carved in the negative, so that the inscription can be read – we therefore usually refer to the impression (ancient or modern) when describing the scene engraved.

Motifs and styles vary greatly. Many are miniature masterpieces, even if their primary function was not as a work of art. Some are as small as about the size of a finger nail. On this small surface, the craftsperson makes their mark. The information that can potentially be gained from these miniature images is immense. They often provide more detail than large-scale images. They are fantastic for studying ancient animals and human-animal relations. Animals are probably the most popular motif. A huge amount of real, mythological and hybrid animals are depicted, on their own, with human figures, or in a criss-cross of animal combat scenes.

Equids are usually depicted in chariot scenes, similar to what we saw on the Standard of Ur. These especially occur in the Early Dynastic III period, but do continue and change slightly during the second millennium BCE. In the Aegean, horses appear on seals from the early part of the Late Bronze Age.

British Museum 122538

Here, the fineness that makes seals so enticing is also what makes them challenging. The images are so small they can be difficult to see at all. It has even been suggested that some engravers were short-sighted. Added to this is common wear and breakage, and in some cases later re-cutting of the design. It is very difficult to take good photographs of a design, where resolution and light can make a big difference. Light from one side might miss certain details and the exact edge of the cut, and light from several angles or overexposure often means loss of depth. This loss of detail is an issue in many publications, and even more so in older ones.

To mitigate this, and to give a clearer image, drawings are made of the design. Drawings are also particularly useful for assimilating a single design when we have many partial ancient impressions of a seal, but not the seal itself. But they come with their own set of challenges, and there are many different styles of drawing. Details may again be lost, or even misrepresented.

A most admirable effort to comprehensively publish all Aegean Bronze Age seals and sealings has been made by the Corpus of Minoan and Mycenaean Seals project. This now also exists as a digital resource. In this case, every effort is made to take high resolution photographs of the ancient object, accompanied by drawings which are checked against the seal and corrected until every detail is satisfactory. The result is really quite wonderful, and it is entirely possible to use the database directly.

However, as a recent visit to the Ashmolean Museum reminded me, nothing beats seeing these objects directly, preferably with a magnifying glass at hand. This is where you get those little extra bits of information that can make all the difference – the shape of the ears and tail of an equid, for example. How the reins are attached or the position of the arms of a charioteer.

Equid on seals

Chariots and equids are sometimes engraved on seals. So we can learn more about the kind of chariots used, the harness and maybe even a bit about the situations in which they were used. The seal depicted above, another fine object from the Royal Cemetery of Ur, has two bands or registers. The lower register has equids in front of a four-wheeled chariot. This particular scene is very similar to the one on the Standard; it also has a row of what looks like soldiers with a prisoner, and a human body on the ground below the equids.

British Museum 89774

On another Near Eastern seal, we again have the four-wheeled vehicle, with each equid engraved separately. The charioteer is seated and the reins clearly go to the front of the animals’ muzzles, suggested the use of a nose or lip ring rather than a bit.

British Museum 1880,0428.1

Seals from the Aegean show the use of the new ‘true’ type of chariot. This is a two-wheeled spoked type, which makes for a much faster and lighter vehicle. Combined with a new way of communication with the equids with the use of two reins and a bit for each animal, this greatly improves manouvering. The charioteer stands rather than sits, and has a whip to encourage the equids – in this cases horses. The horses on this seal are walking or trotting. Together, all of these small details tells us a lot about how humans and equids interacted and how animals were managed and trained.

Till next time, here’s an altogether different class of miniature marvel:

(1) Some seals may also have been used for other purposes, for example dipped in paint and rolled on cloth to make textile designs.

Image credits


Newmarket: A town run by horses

So I went on one of my wonderful research visits to Newmarket, a town known as ‘The Home of Horseracing’. It is completely dominated by horses. I brought photographic evidence:

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The bars are run by horses (obviously)


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The roads are made by horses
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The trees are planted by horses
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The stable agents are horses
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The bins are made (and probably filled) by horses
The parks and playgrounds are known as ‘the Gallops’.

Bad jokes aside, it is clear that in Newmarket the racing industry is part and parcel of the life of the town. With my ancient Near Eastern-tinted glasses, this hub of all things equine made me think of Tell Brak (again!). Tell Brak – ancient Nagar in the late third millennium BCE – was famous for its equids. The archives in Ebla records how they procured equids from Nagar, sometimes even including their personnel, such as equine veterinarians. Nagar may also have had a caravanserai where equids could be stabled. Those equids were not used for racing (as far as we know), but speed is sometimes mentioned as a much desired quality of fine horses and donkeys.

Apart from a very interesting consultation with a vet, my main reason for visiting Newmarket was to see Pot8o and Hyperion. They are both equine legends. I’d been told they can be seen in the relatively new National Heritage Centre for Horseracing & Sporting Art in Palace House.

Hyperion was a small chestnut stallion, aptly named after the mythological Titan who gave birth to the sun and the moon (confusingly, Hyperion the horse’s mother was called Selene, the name of the moon goddess). He was born in 1930 and had many wins on the racecourse. But he is particularly famous as a sire of other great sires and dams. He died in 1960. His skeleton is on display in the Heritage Centre.

Hyperion had what is now commonly called ‘kissing spines’ (the spinal processes of the vertebrae touching each other, which can cause a significant amount of pain), visible here on the thoracic vertebrae.

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Pot8o (or Potoooooooo or Potatoes) was another chestnut racehorse. He was born in 1773. He was very successful both as a racehorse (winning 34 of 40 races) and as a sire. A skeleton found under a tree in Hare Park Stud and excavated in 2010 is thought to belong to the champion and can now also be seen in Palace House.



My favourite part of the Heritage Centre was probably the retraining programme. Flat racehorses typically have a very short career. They start as two-year olds and often only run a couple of years. Racehorses have a reputation for being difficult, too spooky and eager for any other purpose than running. However, most racehorses can be retrained and have a long lifespan as dressage, jumping or companion horses. The RoR (Retraining of Racehorses) does this, and they currently have four horses at Palace House. I was fortunate enough to meet two of them – Danbul (who only has one eye) was being trained in the new outdoor arena, while Jonnie Skull was hanging out in his box, getting ready to be lounged. Both beautiful horses.


To finish off, one of the displays in the Heritage Centre serves as a literal reminder of just how big a heart a horse has:

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Horse and human hearts

Stay tuned for next week’s Festival of Science, where we will have a stall with various animal bone games. More about this soon!


Image credits. Unless otherwise stated, images are by the author.
The Gallops: Bob Jones [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
Hyperion with jockey: Wikimedia Commons
Potoooooooo: Public domain

The Amarna Letters

For you, your household, your wives, and for your sons, your country, your chariots, your horses, your magnates may all go very well. [1]

This is a greeting so standardised in the Amarna Letters that sounds almost formulaic. It reveals the important role that horses and chariots had achieved in the affairs of the rulers of the Eastern Mediterranean by the 14th century BCE. They were essentially part of the extended royal household.

The Amarna Letters is a collection of tablets found at the site of el-Amarna, the ancient city established by Akhenaten in the Egyptian 18th Dynasty. They are mostly letters written to the Egyptian pharaoh from various local rulers and vassals in the Near East and Cyprus. They were written in cuneiform, mainly Akkadian, but there are also a few in other languages.

By the 14th century BCE, the fast, light, two-wheeled chariot had become common and armies were considered significantly handicapped without it. Chariots now had spoked wheels, were pulled by two horses (as opposed to donkeys), and were accompanied by the use of bits with two reins. This was a great improvement to the earlier heavy vehicles and unwieldy communication system of the third millennium and beginning of second millennium BCE. Armies without a chariot division were seriously disadvantaged, although exactly how they were used during battle is still uncertain.

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Detail from Theban Tomb 56, Userhet hunting with white and chestnut horses.


The letters contain many references to the use of horse-drawn chariots for military purposes. For example:

Letter from Rib-Hadda, ruler of Ṣumur (a town in the Levant), asking the pharaoh for help (EA 103):

As the entire garrison has fled from Ṣumur, may it seem right in the sight of the lord, the sun of all countries, and give me 20 pairs of horses, and send an auxiliary force with all speed to Ṣumur in order to guard it. 

Or this letter from Artamanya of Siribashani (EA 201):

I am herewith, along with my troops and my chariots, at the disposition of the archers wherever the king, my lord, orders me to go. 

Chariots were not just used for battle, though. The period witnessed an excessive amount of ‘gift-exchange’ between rulers. Horses and chariot were part of the luxury goods that were exchanged. As in a letter from the Mitanni king Tushratta writes to the pharaoh (EA 19),

I herewith send as my brother’s greeting-gift: 1 gold goblet, with inlays of genuine lapis lazuli in its handle; 1 maninnu necklace, with a counterweight, 20 pieces of genuine lapis lazuli, and 19 pieces of hold, its centerpiece being of genuine lapis lazuli set in gold; 1 maninnu-necklace, with a counterweight, 42 genuine ḫulalu-stones, and 40 pieces of gold shaped like arzallu-stones, its centerpiece being of genuine ḫulalu-stone set in gold; 10 teams of horses; 10 wooden-chariots along with everything belonging to them; and 30 women and men. [2]

The rulers ostensibly send each other these fancy and expensive items as ‘gifts’, but in true social-contract fashion, the expectation is to receive even fancier ‘gifts’ in return. It is basically elite trade shrouded in diplomatic language. Despite this diplomatic framework, the language is sometimes less than subtle. In the same letter, Tushratta asks that in return,

May my brother send me in very great quantities gold that has not been worked, and may my brother send me much more gold than he did to my father. In my brother’s country, gold is as plentiful as dirt.

We also hear of horse-drawn chariots used as appropriate escorts for royalty, and horses are used by messengers (probably ridden rather than pulling a chariot). Swift and white horses were particularly desirable; other sources suggest that white horses were preferred, and as a result, were more expensive.

Zimri-Lim, the king of Mari writes (ARM X 147),

About the white horses that are from Qatna, of which you are always hearing: those horses are really fine!

Unfortunately, the material of the Near East at this period does not include images that distinguish colour, but Egyptian wall paintings sometimes provide a hint. They show both white and chestnut horses, often together as a single team, and even dappled horses.

Detail of wall painting from the Tomb of Rekhmire with white and chestnut horses. Image credit

The Amarna Letters are invaluable as a source for the Late Bronze Age, and especially for the ‘international spirit’ of connections and trade between the regions of the Eastern Mediterranean that characterises this period in history. They also give us a wonderful insight into the way horses and chariots were seen and exchanged as highly valued prestige goods.


  1. The translations given here are adapted from William Moran’s The Amarna Letters (1992).
  2. The word ‘brother’ is not a biological marker here; it is used between rulers who consider each other equal.


The Standard of Ur

As a Christmas special, I want to talk about one of my all-time favourite objects from the ancient Near East, which is an enigmatic item known as The Standard of Ur. Obviously, it’s mostly a favourite because it has wonderfully rendered equids on it (I’ll come back to why I like these particular depictions so much). But it is also one of these kinds of objects that is an excellent representation of so many things. Its place in the British Museum’s History of the World in 100 Objects is fully justified. Speaking of archaeological storytelling and object biographies, this is a great example of an object that can be used to tell stories going in many different directions, without contradicting each other.

The Standard of Ur, ‘War’ side. Image from The British Museum
‘Peace’ side. Image from The British Museum

The standard comes from an era and site in history that has become near-legendary. The site of Ur was in the area known as Sumer in southern Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). We are back in about the middle of the third millennium BCE, and it was a time of some of the first real cities, the emergence of writing in administrative systems and a remarkable display of wealth in tombs of the elite. Ur was excavated in the 1920s and 1930s under the direction of Sir Leonard Woolley, and many of the finds went to the British Museum and University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The biography of Woolley is itself an intriguing one, reflecting ties between archaeology and intelligence agencies, with contemporaries such as Agatha Christie and T.E. Lawrence and interruptions by two world wars.

Woolley struck gold. Literally. Among many hundreds of tombs, 16 stood out for their more elaborate construction, a presence of human sacrifices and the sheer amount of wealth in terms of grave goods. They have since been known as the Royal Cemetery of the Early Dynastic period in Ur. Among the grave goods were jewellery, weapons, seal stones, fine vessels, musical instruments, statuettes, wheeled vehicles fully equipped with animals, grooms and drivers, and soldiers and ‘court ladies’ in all their regalia. The materials were made of silver, bronze/copper, wood, ceramics, stone, ivory, carnelian, lapis lazuli and shell, along with gold.

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The ED III Royal Cemetery at Ur


The standard was found in the Royal Tomb of PG 779. It is a trapezoid box about 50 cm long. On each of its four sides are scenes with humans and animals, created with inlays of lapis lazuli, red limestone and shell (the composition is partially reconstructed). Its function is not known. Woolley thought it might be a standard of the kind carried by military units. This hasn’t been substantiated and finds little support in the ancient imagery, but the name has stuck nevertheless.

The two long sides are usually referred to as the ‘war’ and ‘peace’ side respectively. As you might expect, that is because one side appears to show military activity, with soldiers and equid-drawn vehicles in motion, and the other a more peaceful scene that includes a banquet and perhaps booty from the previous battle.

Much can be said about the compositions, but the fun part here is of course the equids! You might even have noticed that The Spirited Horse emblem is very similar in style to the equids on the standard. That’s because it comes from the same time period and same kind of art, although not from the standard itself (the emblem is instead inspired by a plaque found at Mari).

The ‘war’ side has three registers. The top register has one four-wheeled wagon pulled by equids, while the bottom register has another four vehicles with equids. Each team of equids consists of four stallions. The engravings offer some really interesting details about how these equids were observed and integrated into human activity. Starting with their tack, we can see that the animals were controlled by a nose ring. Reins were attached to the nose ring and run back to the driver through the rein ring (actual examples of rein rings were found in the Ur tombs). Probably only one rein was attached to each nose ring. This method of control (combined with the kind of vehicle) would mean a rather unwieldy vehicle that would have been difficult to turn.

The equids all carry neck collars with some kind of tassels attached, probably a textile or leather. The tassels might mostly have been decorative, but could also have served a practical purpose (for example, keeping insects from bothering the animals, especially when sweating).

The rendering of the animals themselves is remarkable for its attention to detail and reveals good knowledge of their anatomy and behaviour. The lines of the head and muzzle, main body, hooves and hocks are particularly accurate. Other features conform to the standard manner of rendering, as can for example be seen in the way the eyes are done on both humans and animals.

On the ‘peace’ side, equids are only shown in the bottom of the three registers. There are two teams of four being led along without their wagon. They wear a collar and possibly nose rings (they are not well preserved, so this is a little unclear), but otherwise no tack.

The teams are shown at two different gaits. The ‘peace’ side equids and the two teams against the left edge on the ‘war’ side are all walking, while the remaining three teams in the bottom register appear to be charging or galloping. The synchrony of the animals is of course artificial, an artistic short-cut to convey the number of equids in the teams. The accuracy of the rendering of the animals’ gaits are in contrast with the anatomical details. 

The walking equids and other animals on the plaque are shown in a gait called the pace. This is a gait that some breeds of horses (such as Icelandic ponies) can perform, and is also the way camels naturally walk, with both legs on one side of the body moving forwards at the same time. However, it is not natural to most equids, and even less so at the slow speed of walking. A normal walk has four beats rather than the two depicted. Since all the walking animals are shown in the same manner, this is more likely due to artistic convention rather than lack of knowledge on the part of the craftsperson (or perhaps a bit of both).

Donkeys walking. No two legs are exactly parallel or hit the ground at the same time.

The gallop or charging is equally problematic. An equid’s canter/gallop has three beats, but the two front legs and the two hind do not move together as shown on the standard, even when at a full stretch. Charging would require the animals to be in an initially fairly stationary position, which seems inappropriate for the context. Might they instead be jumping over the fallen bodies underneath them? This would certainly explain the way the legs are depicted, but would the unwieldy vehicles be able to roll over the bodies afterwards and keep upright? The more plausible explanation here again seems to be an artistic convention that renders equids (and other animals) at full speed in this specific way. It is a convention that continues throughout the third, second and at least well into the first millennium BCE, both in the Near East and surrounding areas. The hunting reliefs from Nimrud and Niniveh in the 8th-7th centuries BCE still show horses galloping in the same manner, despite the otherwise incredible amount of detail and realism.

Canter sequence. Front and hind legs are never in the exact same position.

Another interesting detail is the way the ears are shown, with one pointing forward and the other backwards. This is a very typical equine action that usually means the animal is paying attention to something, without being overly stressed or anxious. It is so characteristic that it must have been observed at some point. But it is inappropriate for the three teams charging or galloping. Remember this guy from an earlier blog? Here he is again, demonstrating his use of one ear forward, the other back, paying close attention to the rider:



I keep calling these animals ‘equids’. What kind of equids are they, exactly? This question is another reason why I like this object. It is a great example of the discussion of equid species in the ancient Near East. The equids on the standard have been called onagers, donkeys, wild donkeys and mules/hybrids. One thing is clear: they are not horses. Beyond that, it is difficult from the iconography alone to establish with certainty what they are. There are such great variety in the sizes and shapes of equids that features like the length of the ears or the gracility of the body can only be suggestive. Donkeys might be a good candidate since they are by far the most commonly attested equid at this period, but it is also around this time that a hybrid (the kunga) is first mentioned. It is not known exactly what it is a cross between, but the domestic donkey is almost certainly one of the parents.

Whatever the case may be, these equids were highly valued and played a part (directly or indirectly) in human warfare from very early on. The Standard of Ur provides a peak at that aspect and represents some of the wealth amassed by a limited group of people. One thing about the standard and the Royal Tombs at Ur continues to puzzle me. Equids are animals associated with prestige and wheeled vehicles in the imagery – an equid figure of electrum is even placed on top of a rein ring. In several of the royal tombs, remains of wooden vehicles were found with their draft animals still in place at the front. Yet these animals are not equids but cattle. Since there is no lack of wealth, I wonder why. What made cattle more suitable for this purpose (or equids unsuitable)?

I will finish with this pondering of mine, which I keep coming back to every so often – maybe some of you will have an answer or even just a good old-fashioned conspiracy theory. In the meantime, I wish you all a very Happy Christmas.

Till the Cows Come Home

… and other stories about bovine decision making and strong-mindedness.

Today’s blog is based on a new book by Rosamund Young called The Secret Life of Cows.

This is a wonderful little book. Page after page, Rosamund Young relays funny, sad and joyful tales of the life and actions of many generations of cows and bulls at her family’s farm. The farm is called Kite’s Nest Farm and, as one might expect, also houses many other animals, some of whom occasionally decide to interfere in the narrative with their antics. In true biographical fashion, the book starts with a family tree of one of the bovine families that lived on the farm. Since Young’s main argument is that all cows have individuality and should be treated with respect, it makes sense that all the cows are named. The names and corresponding nick names reflect this perfectly. They are cute, silly, dignified, proud and funny, exactly like the animals themselves. The cow Harriet received the nick name Fat Hat (take a wild guess why). She started both the Bonnet and the Fat Hat II families. Little Bonnet gave birth to Christmas Bonnet and Smasher, while her sister Roan Bonnet was the proud mother of The Earl of Warwick, The Bishop of Durham and The Duke of Lancaster.

This charming family tree is much more than a neat little quirk or guide for all the stories to come in the book. It is a very clever illustration of the ‘personality’ of cows and bulls; it maps onto and copies family trees common for humans, but adds the peculiarity of bovines and of each animal using the individual names. The line of nine calves called Ronnie by Fat Hat only serves to emphasise this. A similar situation can be found in a human family, where Harry Senior may turn into Harry Junior and Harry Junior Junior. Or just Harry (our royal families still use this same principle, adding numbers after the name to differentiate). Here, it is an example of the non-standout characteristic of some animals – again, just as might be the case with humans.

The book is basically a line of wonderful anecdotes about family life and ties among cattle. Actually, I think Young never uses the word ‘cattle’ in the book. I assume this is a very deliberate attempt to individualise and force a more personal encounter and thought process. ‘Cattle’ has connotations of large herds, mass production and big slaughterhouses. Instead, she mostly uses ‘cow’ or, more rarely, ‘bull’. The downside is of course the disappearance of the bulls. The last pages, with “Twenty things you ought to know about cows”, I take to also apply to bulls, at least judging from the preceding pages. Maybe there is a poetic justice here, although I am not aware of any kind of prolonged gender inequality in the bovine world.

The stories of family ties and friends abound with affection, play, grief and communication both between individual cows and between cows and humans. In a lovely turn of the table, Young repeatedly refers to times when a cow or bull decided that humans might on occasion be useful. When that happens, they find various ingenious ways of communicating their needs. This happened, for example, one night, when a cow named Araminta used a distinctive mooing to wake Young up and make her come check on her:

When I had fed and milked her [Araminta, who was without her calf The Don and in pain due to her udder being full of milk]. I picked up a torch and explained that she must show me where The Don was. When our cows do give us credit for intelligence they tend to make the mistake of presuming that we know everything, and after I had opened the cow-pen door and pushed Araminta out, she just stood still. I was afraid she might start mooing again to remind me to find her son, so I pushed her in one direction, in a fairly businesslike way, as if I knew where we were going. Trustingly, she complied with my instructions. After fifty yards I stopped. I gently turned her round and pushed her back the way we had come. This made her realise at once that I had not got a clue where we were going and she turned herself around and marched off in the original direction at twice the speed. I followed. We found The Don three fields away (p. 51).

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Stories like this show that cows can be intelligent and caring, and the different levels that this occurs at are astounding. Araminta felt her own pain and knew that her child was in pain. She also knew where and how to get help for both of them, even if it took a while for the humans to get her point. When a human came to help, Araminta eventually understood that she must act the guide. This is a prime example of what I mean by the agency of animals.

Part of my approach of animals as social agents is in fact much better expressed in Young’s words,

Everyone who keeps a few animals will unquestionably know them as individuals and will probably talk about the finer points or idiosyncrasies of their natures with much understanding. Farmed animals are usually kept in large groups but this does not mean that individuality disappears. Their levels of intelligence vary as much as is true of human beings. […]

Many people judge the comparative intelligence of different species by human standards. Yet why should human criteria have any relevance to other species? We should presume that every animal has a limitless ability to experience a whole range of emotions, judged only by its own terms (pp. 2-3).

It goes without saying that animals do not have the same kinds of intelligence that humans do. What is often forgotten is that the reverse is also true, and that there are huge variations both between and within species – including our own. Human intelligence is very different from elephant intelligence, or from any other animal for that matter. According to our own parameters, some humans are much more intelligent than others. We even talk of difference kinds of human intelligence: you can be ‘street smart’ (definitely not me) or ‘academic/nerdy’ kind of smart (possibly closer to that one), or you can have ‘emotional intelligence’ (no idea about that one, so it’s probably not good news). There are fancier names for these, and supposedly there are somewhere between seven and nine types. Some types are valued more than others, whether consciously or unconsciously. Perhaps animal intelligent could be understood in a similar way, with a corresponding discussion of the legitimacy of the hierarchies in place (as in, is it right to think that one kind of intelligence is ‘better’ than others?).

Young’s book is neither the beginning nor the end of the discussion on animal sentiment, intelligence and welfare. But it is an excellent contribution, and one that takes a more unusual perspective, from animals that most of us only encounter in herds, or as the meat we put on our tables.

All of these delightful bovine family stories make me think of the Cambridge cows and wonder who is friends with or related to whom. I imagine them going through some of the same trials and tribulations as those on Kite Nest Farm.

The Cambridge Cows. Photo by Jess Beck.

In case you’re now thinking I have strayed too far from archaeology and the ancient world, here are a few images of ancient cattle from the Near East, where cows and bulls were some of the most frequently depicted animals. Their meat was eaten, and they were used for plowing, but they were also part of religious rituals and some deities and mythical creatures have bovine attributes. 

Bovine body, wings and human head, protective deity (‘lamassu’) gate from Nimrud. The Met.


Bovine amulet from Royal Cemetery at Ur. British Museum.


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Cattle were part of the funerary sacrifices in the Royal Cemetery at Ur. Reconstruction as published by excavator Leonard Woolley.

I’ll leave you with the bovine version of last blog’s donkey:

The stories we tell – Vertical and horizontal narratives in archaeology

Archaeologists don’t only dig in the ground and make exciting discoveries. When relating the discoveries, archaeologists essentially also have to be storytellers. We have to put things together into a coherent and appealing narrative. Often this means putting together large amounts of data from various kinds of investigations and expert analyses. Different version of the story is created depending on the format and audience.

The stories can, very broadly speaking, be categorised as what I here call ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’. The two of course overlap, but for the sake of clarity, I will here discuss them separately.

A vertical story flows diachronically through time. The best examples are person biographies. We can tell a vertical story of the life of mystery writer and playwright Agatha Christie. This can be illustrated with a time line highlighting selected important points in her life. The storytelling is in this case unilinear and diachronic.

Agatha Christie timeline.png

If you know anything about Agatha Christie, you will probably note that for all the points mentioned, many are missing. There is nothing about her enigmatic 11 missing days, for example. Storytelling is as much about what we choose not to say, as it is about what we do say. For every point we include, there is a multitude of things we don’t include. This is partly a feature of compelling and meaningful narrative, and partly a feature of the human condition in general: filtering is necessary for meaning to be possible. It is also part of archaeological conditions. Not only is it not possible to record everything, many things are simply also not recordable, not preserved.

The choice of which points to include (and exclude), and how to interpret them, is what can lead to varying narratives, even using the same material and information. And that’s not here getting into the choices made for which material and information to record in the first place! In archaeology, vertical narratives similar to a biographical time line of Agatha Christie are sometimes called object biographies or life histories. These kinds of biographies can be applied to animals (including humans), objects, assemblages, sites or even larger environments or regions – it simply depends on the imagination of the storyteller-archaeologist. An example of the time line for a ceramic vessel could look something like this:

pot timeline.png
Image of A8q122.4 courtesy of IIMAS

In this case, the gaps between selected high points are mostly due to gaps in knowledge and gaps in how this object has been examined using scientific methods. For each of the points concerning the object, we could tell a corresponding story involving the people it has met and the places it has travelled to:

pot timeline2.png

If we examine the shape, clay and technique used to make the pot, we can learn much about ancient skills in pottery production – whether they used handmade or wheelmade methods, where they obtained their clay and what they chose to temper it with, firing temperatures and the kinds of vessels priorities by the residents at this point in time. This in turn may tell us about contact with other regions (if, for example, the clay or tempering needed to be traded elsewhere) and production/consumption taking place most likely involving liquids (a hole in the bottom of the vessels suggests this). The bitumen repair shows us that 1) they had access to bitumen, 2) they knew how to use it for waterproof repairs, and 3) this vessel was valuable enough to expend material, skill and time on. When it broke again, those values no longer applied, for whatever reason. But the life of the pot does not end there. Fast forward over 4000 years, and modern excavations brings it back into the light of day. The excavation itself could prompt a long and intricate tale of modern explorations and a time where the vessel is once again repaired and valued in a different manner. Finally, its exact current location and condition are uncertain, but the story of them cannot ignore the sad reality of war and looting.

Each of these, in effect, is a small horizontal story. Horizontal stories take a synchronic approach, choosing one point in time to examine more broadly (in archaeological terms, a ‘point’ can be hundreds of years). Let’s look at another example that might illustrate both vertical and horizontal stories. Let’s imagine we journey back about 4000 years to northern Syria, to a city known as Nagar (modern Tell Brak). In a northern section of the city, we find a complex of buildings and temples which may have functioned as a caravanserai, or way station, for traders and other travellers. The donkeys of the travellers would rest and receive refreshments here, while merchants may deliver some of their goods.

Taking a short tour through the complex, we find the main entrance in the south through the first room. This room then divides into two new ones, which both open onto a large courtyard with the temple on the northern side. On the eastern side is a row of very narrow rooms which likely supported more storeys which would have afforded a good view of the entire area from above. The eastern part of the complex contained a set of larger rooms where diplomats may have been received by a local high official. At some point in the late third millennium BCE, the entire complex was deliberately closed by filling it in and placing a number of deposits throughout. The deposits consist of donkeys, a dog, pig and deer remains, human remains, pottery, jewellery, weapons and tools. This was most likely a ritual event that may have been intended as preparation for completely new structures or as a response to contemporary events. 


This short tour of the complex is essentially a horizontal narrative. I could elaborate greatly on this horizontal narrative by mentioning the important role played by donkeys and other equids in the life of the area. Eight complete donkey skeletons were deposited during the closing event, but equid figurines were also found associated with the buildings, along with inscriptions mentioning the prestigious kunga-equids. The story could go on about the trading networks of the Near East, the mobility of various groups of people, or the possible implications of the deliberate deposits placed during the closing. Vertical stories could instead be told by focussing on this particular section of the city and its changing structures throughout its history. Or shorter (and much  patchier) biographies could be told by examining what we know about each of the donkeys. For example, Donkey 5, found in the courtyard, was a female donkey. She was quite old when she died (perhaps over 20 years), and during her lifetime, she had probably given birth several times. Notching on her incisors might be evidence of crib-biting, which means she had been stabled for longer periods of time, and damage on her vertebrae could suggest she had also been ridden. We do not know exactly when each of these events took place in her life, but throughout, she was deeply involved in and part of human affairs.


Diverging stories and multivocality

Sometimes (ok, quite often), archaeologists don’t agree. We tell different stories of the same place. The stories may compliment each other – for example, there may be one story about the dead and one about the living at a specific site (corresponding to narratives of funerary practices in a cemetery and social structures in a settlement). There can also be a range of ‘voices’ concerning the history and meaning of a specific site. These voices can come from archaeologists as well as local or indigenous groups, and various other interest holders. Multivocality is just a fancy word for all these different kinds of narratives – giving space and consideration to multiple voices. It is increasingly encouraged, and has been a big part of the excavations at for example Catalhöyük in Turkey. This does not mean that all voices or stories are equal for all purposes.

There are also directly contradictory stories. Stories where two opposing views are expressed that cannot both be upheld. From my world of looking at ancient horses, we can return for a minute to the discussion about domestication. One of the pieces of evidence used to try to prove domestication of the horse is the use of the bit. The idea is that if you can prove a bit was used, that implies the horse was ridden and domesticated. The leap is perhaps too much, but I will leave that aside for the time being. Apart from finding a bit in the mouth of a horse or discovering images that depict such a usage, it may be possible to argue for bitting by examining wear on the teeth. Specifically, we are talking about the lower second premolar, where the bit would be against the lower premolars. 

skull with bit
Beautiful Santall with overlaid skull to show position of bit in the mouth
p2 wear botai
Wear on lower second premolar

One argument is that if a significant level of wear can be detected on those teeth, the horse was used with a bit, which then proves domestication. Another argument is that the wear can be explained with natural causes, the upper and lower teeth rubbing against each other (“natural occlusion”), which does not prove domestication. The two conclusions are not simply divergent but in direct contrast to each other.

I am here very much paraphrasing the situation – choosing to exclude many details in order to explain these particular narratives. In this case, what is really needed is more information. We would need to know much more about how various bits affect the teeth and what kinds of natural occlusion can occur. Since it seems that both processes can cause wear, we especially need to know if it is possible to differentiate between the two. Until then, the narrative of horse domestication includes a number of gaps and a level of uncertainty. These gaps may be at least partly filled in by other types of evidence, but that is a story for another time.

As a final note, I will leave you with this wonderfully honest reminder of the changing conditions of interpretation, which I think applies not only in archaeology:

Billede 22-10-2017 15.56.10.jpg


… and the one donkey who always knows better:


[“The stories we tell” was originally a presentation for the Festival of Ideas at Cambridge, 26 October 2017. See also bonebroke’s post on the event]

References and image credits:

Plan of Tell Brak Area FS adapted after David Oates, Joan Oates and Helen McDonald, Excavations at Tell Brak, Vol. 2: Nagar in the third millennium BC (2001), fig. 42.

Debate concerning bit wear vs. natural occlusion, see especially papers by Anthony & Brown and Benecke & von den Driesch in Marsha Levine, Colin Renfrew and Katie Boyle (eds.), Prehistoric Steppe Adaptation and the Horse (2003). Image of tooth wear adapted from Anthony & Brown, fig. 5.5.

“… and the truth?” information board from the Museum of Gamla Uppsala, Sweden.

Image from The Neverending Story here.

Ritual, Archaeology & Animals

I recently attended a workshop in Uppsala on the use of animal bodies in ritual. It’s an old familiar topic that have been part of my research since my postgraduate studies, which makes it kind of bittersweet. But there are always new perspectives, and this workshop gave me the chance to see it from very different contexts that I am used to since it involved mainly Scandinavian archaeology with some Greek and Egyptian added in for flavour. It also meant I got to spend an entire weekend with my friends Bettina and Adam (Bettina is in fact the one who had invited me), who were really the greatest hosts I could ask for. It involved copious amounts of tea, delicious food, in-depth discussions of animal bone depositions and exchange of ideas, visits to the Gustavinaum Museum (with the endearing Juuli telling us all the stories not on display) and the burial mounds in Old Uppsala. Before I get into the nitty-gritty of blood and ritual, I want to send a big thanks to Bettina, Adam, Juuli and the people at the workshop for making it a great weekend.

Photos: Reconstructed Viking bridle at Old Uppsala Museum; burial mounds at Old Uppsala; Uppsala University Lecture Theatre (photo by Juuli Ahola).



What is ritual? Most of us have a morning ritual that consists of some set sequence of actions, like press snooze on alarm twice, yawn, stumble to bathroom, locate kettle power button and somehow find your way to start the day.

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We also have extensive sports rituals. Most football games start in a predetermined way with the players walking in neat rows out into the field, shaking hands etc – and think of elaborate events like the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games (the word ceremony being a bit of a give-away) and the corresponding carrying of the torch. Or how about the fantastic Maori haka

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When we talk about ritual in archaeology, we usually think of something that has a religious or sacred component.

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Like this dance half-naked with a fire in the dark kind of ritual.


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… followed by a spectacularly bloody sacrifice.

Here we immediately run into another hurdle of definition. What exactly constitutes religion or something being sacred? A quick look at the works of great thinkers such as Émile Durkheim or Sigmund Freud might leave you more or less as complexed as to begin with.

The problem is only exacerbated when dealing with archaeological remains. It relates to an important discussion within archaeological theory. Religion today is strongly associated with beliefs, but both beliefs and action form part of religious practices. The question is, is it really possible to identify belief in the archaeological record? Can you identify immaterial thoughts, intentions or ideas in material remains? One branch of archaeological theory, known as cognitive archaeology, focusses precisely on this aspect of the past. This is epitomised in the work of Sir Colin Renfrew, who offers suggestions to the kinds of ritual and symbolic activity that we might find.

Renfrew (1985, pp. 18-20) made a kind of check list of 18 criteria based on four aspects of ritual that we might be able to use to identify it archaeologically. I won’t repeat all of them here, but suffice to give a few examples:

1. ritual may take place in a spot with special, natural associations: e.g. a cave, a grove of trees, a spring, a mountain top.

2. Alternatively it may take place in a special building set apart from sacred functions.

6. The structure and equipment used may employ a number of attention-focussing devices, reflected in the architecture and in the movable equipment.

7. The association with the omnipotent power(s) may be reflected in the use of a cult image of that power, or its aniconic representation.

8. The chosen place will have special facilities for the practice of ritual, e.g. altars, benches, pools or basins of water, hearths, pits for libation.

10. Food and drink may be brought, and possibly consumed as offerings, or burnt/poured away.

13. The sacred area is likely to be rich in repeated symbols (redundancy). [1]

They seem like useful tools, right? They are. But as with so many other things in archaeology (and I assume other disciplines), if you take them as absolute, you can come up with all kinds of fun scenarios and conclusions. The now very famous and funny Motel of the Mysteries by David Macauley has gone so far as to show how everyday scenes from a modern bedroom or bathroom could be interpreted as highly ritual contexts based on archaeological criteria (short extract here). I highly recommend looking at Macauley’s work. Since I don’t want to directly copy his images here (ok, I do, but probably best not to), I’ve attempted my own little illustration of the kind of interpretation we might make based purely on context and finds.


The scene is one of a modern living room (full disclosure: this is very loosely based on one of my previous accommodations). We know what the features are and how to understand them. If we did not have this knowledge, we could use some of the criteria listed above and interpret the whole scene in a very different manner, as seen on the second image. In this kind of parody, a ‘normal’ living room is turned into a temple, complete with idols, offerings and altars.

A related running joke in archaeology is that whenever we don’t know what something is or don’t understand something, we label it ritual. Especially when a context or object seem to have no immediately useful practical function.

Photos: Jokes about ritual as found hanging around the Department of Archaeology. Photos by the author and Jess Beck.

There is an important point being made here about the pitfalls and limits of archaeological interpretation. One that reminds us that archaeology is always only ever the best stories we can tell based on the material available and current knowledge and technology.

Here’s the thing, though. These are wonderful and totally valid jokes about archaeological interpretation. The great thing about them is that while making a bit of a mockery of archaeology, they simultaneously show an aspect of what it is that archaeology can do and can contribute. Because these ‘archaeological’ interpretations of modern scenarios really reveal something about our society today. We do not call our obsession with various media ‘religion’ or ‘worship’, but it many ways it is not that far off, and does manifest itself in similar ways. Our ‘idols’ of TVs, tablets, computers and mobile phones are given prime spots in our homes and lives more broadly. So the same way an archaeological analysis of the context of a modern home will reveal something about the importance of media in modern society, it can also reveal something about the centrality of other things in ancient societies. One might even argue that archaeologists (and anthropologists if there are live beings) would be some of the best equipped for dealing with alien encounters because we are experts in ‘reading’ material remains.

Let’s return to the concept of ritual deposits in archaeology. Ritual has in a sense become a catch-all term for all kinds of religious or sacred acts. This broadness makes the term less useful, but we keep it this way because we sometimes believe we can identity the action without being able to specify its exact nature or purpose. Rituals do have a purpose, but they do not always have an immediately obvious practical purpose. Hence it is often associated with waste. We tend not to like waste, and feel that waste needs explanation (and maybe it does). More often than not, it is likely that ancient people performing a ritual did not see it as waste, but as having a purpose visible to them, but not necessarily visible to us.

A wide range of rituals largely based in mythology and folklore was set out in the Scottish anthropologist James Frazer’s The Golden Bough. This monumental work (the third edition was in 12 volumes) tells wonderful stories of substitute kings, cannibalism and fertility rites, among many other things. Frazer organised the various rituals and traditions into broad categories, but it was Arnold van Gennep who placed them in a tripartite structure of separation/pre-liminial, transition/liminal and incorporation/post-liminal. He saw them as marking transitional points in human life (e.g. birth, death, marriage, or whatever a given group considers significant), and each ritual can elaborate on one or several of the three stages.

Rituals often involve animals, especially as part of sacrifices. Sacrifice is perhaps the most fascinating of all rituals. The topic has sparked an overwhelming amount of literature (see below for some suggested reading). But behind this one word lies a long list of ancient practices. The ancient Greeks performed rituals known as thusia, trapezomata, theoxenia, sphagia and sparagmos, all of which are types of sacrifices (see for example the work of Gunnel Ekroth for papers on this). In the ancient Near East, sacrifices were part of regular offerings in the temples, along with special feasting events and processions. A sacrifice was needed for divination to take place (reading of an animal’s organs in order to predict events or communicate with a deity), and could be necessary for purification and when treaties were signed. Various kinds of sacrifice and ritual communal meals took place in relation to mortuary activities and ancestor worship. Similar ranges can be found just about anywhere in the world, and it is no wonder that we struggle to come up with a single theory or explanation for such a variety of practices. And sacrifice itself is really just one ritual among many.

Seal impression of Akkadian seal from ancient Urkesh, NE Syria. Sacrifice and butcher of bull.
Plaque showing sacrifice and butcher of ram. From ancient Mari in Syria.

In a ritual such as sacrifice, animal and human may face one of their most extreme encounters. Humans deliberately and carefully lead an animal to its death. This is not a black-and-white case of humans being cruel to or not caring about the animal. Paradoxically, an animal is often only considered suitable for ritual if it already has value (symbolic or otherwise). Measures are often taken to ensure the perceived cooperation and willingness of the animal.

Perhaps most frequent is the discovery of animal bodies in burials. You have probably heard of the crazy kinds of animals that the Egyptians chose to mummify – cats, dogs, monkeys, birds, gazelles and crocodiles. In the ancient Near East and many other parts of the world, equids can be found associated with human tombs (see MAPS for the geographical and chronological distribution of these).

Donkeys found at Tell Brak in Syria. Photo credits.

These complete animal bodies suggest a close relationship between humans and equids, where the animals’ presence is not for nutritional purposes, but related to the identity of the deceased and/or a personal connection between the animal and the deceased human. This relationship was felt to be so important that one or more equids were killed and placed in proximity to the human. In some cases, we even appear to have separate equid tombs, where the equid may have been buried for its own sake, in line with the treatment and honour given to its human counterpart.

Thus, rituals represent a very special kind of human-animal relation. More than anything, a ritual that requires interaction with an animal reveals something about human attitudes to that animal, and animals in general. Indirectly, however, it also reveals human-animal relations more broadly. As with so many other things in archaeology, there are no guarantees. Ritual is one of these rather abstract concepts that appeal to our fascination with the mysterious. Even with all possible signs of ritual practice and beliefs checked off, we could end up with a Mysteries of the Hotel kind of scenario. But to me at least that is all just part of the excitement of archaeology. It’s a puzzle-solving business.

This is probably not the last you’ll hear on ritual. Bettina has promised to join with some of her thoughts on the matter soon. I know I’m looking forward to that. Now, the obligatory horses-are-forces-of-power gif:



References and a few more works on ritual and sacrifice in archaeology:

Bell, Catherine. Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice. 1992.

Carter, Jeffrey (ed). Understanding Religious Sacrifice: A Reader. 2003.

Kyriakidis, Evangelos. The Archaeology of Ritual. 2007

Pluskowski, Aleksander. The Ritual Killing and Burial of Animals. 2012.

Porter, Anne & Glenn Schwartz (eds). Sacred Killing. 2012.

Trumbull, H. Clay. The Threshold Covenant or the Beginning of Religious Rites. 1896.

Renfrew, Colin. The Archaeology of Cult. 1985.

van Gennep, Arnold. The Rites of Passage. 1909.


  1. Similar lists of criteria for identifying human sacrifice and sacrifice in iconography can be found in Schwartz 2012 and Recht 2015.