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Aurochs in Mesolithic Britain

16 August 2014

Bones of aurochs have been found in plentiful quantities at Blick Mead (as reported a couple of weeks ago). This site was used for a long time, over 3000 years, and it seems that periodically, possibly at certain points in the calendar, aurochs were hunted down on Salisbury Plain and brought to what is now Vespasians Camp, cooked and eaten – in a grand communal feast. This may have a connection with ancient representations of the bull that go way back into the Palaeolithic period, surviving into the modern European world with such folklore and games as bull fights. The bull is also a feature of western Asian religion – the god Enlil for example, and Egyptian examples exist (preserved in the practise of Apis bull burials), and even in the Bible (where it is the calf that seems to take preference). Cattle may originally have been domesticated for religious reasons – and Jill Abery has an article in an early SIS journal to that effect.

Now, it is merely speculation that aurochs were hunted and eaten at Blick Mead for religio-cultic reasons, rather than hunted regularly as a food source for the tribe, but in the latest edition of Current Archaeology Chris Catling says that two aurochs were brought to the surface during the storms of last winter. The beach, in Wales, was stripped bare of several thousand tons of shingle in January 2014, uncovering peat and tree stumps, and the aurochs bones, dating back to the Mesolithic. These animals were therefore widespread in the Mesolithic era – and so were humans. There is no indication the two aurochs were killed and eaten – they were unfortunate enough to be living in an area that was submerged by rising levels. As, unlike trees, aurochs have legs, it would seem the inundation was rapid and unexpected, otherwise they would have been able to lumber away.

Bulls also figure in Neolithic cultic activity too as the entrance to long barrows, such as West Kennet near Silbury, is shaped like an ox head, complete with horns, and the remains of ox heads are buried ritually (whatever that might mean) in various barrows. In addition, after the Ice Age, humans migrated north from Iberia and SW France into Britain and NW France. Could they have brought a bull cult with them?

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