The various bones — belonging to horses, pigs, cattle, and at least one dog — date back to the Iron Age and illuminate Europe's little-known history of animal sacrifice.
Archaeologists in Spain recently uncovered incredibly rare evidence of mass, ritual animal sacrifice dating back to the 5th century B.C.E. at the Casas del Turuñuelo archaeological site.
According to a study published in the journal PLOS ONE, the team unearthed 6,770 ancient bones belonging to at least 52 different animals, including 41 horses, six cows, four pigs, and one dog.
But what was the purpose of this mass sacrifice?
As the study authors detailed, based on how the remains were layered, it seems as if the animals were buried in three phases — or “a series of episodes of slaughter.” The first two layers of animals were simply killed and buried, while the bones in the third layer showed signs that the creatures had been butchered for their meat.
Archaeologists also found burnt vegetable matter alongside the bones, suggesting that fire may have played a role in the sacrifice ritual.
It is possible, the study authors say, that the animals buried in the third layer may have been butchered for some sort of large banquet or feast, with the rest of their remains deposited in the pit as “tokens of the event.”
The site is particularly exceptional because true physical evidence of animal sacrifice is uncommon in the region, despite appearing in the written record. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, for example, reference bull and ram sacrifice in the Mediterranean around the Iron Age, but it is rare for archaeologists to make discoveries of this caliber.
Study co-author María Pilar Iborra Eres told PopSci that the Casas del Turuñuelo site is of special note due to the “excellent conservation of the building and its contents. In this case, the accumulation of bone remains that testify to ritual activities.”
The discovery also reveals more about the mysterious ancient civilization behind the ritual: the Tartessos.
The Tartessian people inhabited the southern Iberian Peninsula between the 9th and 5th centuries B.C.E, at the height of the Iron Age. They had their own system of writing, known as Tartessian, that included around 97 inscriptions.
The Tartessos civilization appeared often in writings from ancient Greece and the Near East, in which it is referred to as a near-mythic harbor city. However, by the time of the Romans, the Tartessians had vanished without a trace.
The Greek historian Ephorus of Cyme once wrote of “a very prosperous market called Tartessos, with much tin carried by river, as well as gold and copper from Celtic lands.”
Other ancient scholars, such as Aristotle and Pausanias, referred to Tartessos as a river, rather than a city, saying that it began at the Pyrenees mountains and flowed out toward the sea at two separate points. Between those two points, Pausanias claimed, sat a city of the same name.
In any case, many historians today consider Tartessos to be the first true civilization in the Western Mediterranean, with archaeologist Richard Freund telling Atlas Obscura, “Their sophistication was remarkable.”
Freund added Tartessos was primarily a sea-based culture, so to find evidence of their society further inland suggests they were “running from something. They felt their gods had turned against them. So they built these banquet halls and made these sacrifices to appease them. Apparently it didn’t work.”
Perhaps the new discovery at Casas del Tureñuelo represents one such attempt at appeasing the gods — and by sacrificing their horses, the Tartessians showed that they did not plan on going anywhere anytime soon.
Though the final days of this once revered civilization still remain a mystery, this new study has certainly fitted together a few more pieces of the puzzle.
After learning about this mass animal sacrifice pit discovered in Spain, discover how Peruvian archaeologists uncovered the largest child mass sacrifice site in the world. Or, read about the Bronze Age girl who was buried with more than 180 animal bones.