Department of Anthropology,
University of Tennessee
The animal bones found in association with
the human skeletal remains from the tombs of St. Stephen’s Monastery comprised
a broad range of domestic animals (several
examples pictured below).
Table 1 summarizes all identified bones, including taxon, element, fusion
or tooth wear state, and other characteristics. The assemblage was
small, totaling 158 identifiable and unidentifiable bones. Most of
the bones (121) were identifiable to species or subfamily (i.e., bones
identified as Ovis/Capra must all belong to the subfamily Caprinae) and
only a minority (37) were not identifiable past the categories of ‘large
mammal’ or ‘medium mammal’. This is the quite the opposite condition
from most archaeological assemblages, where the vast majority of bones
are not identifiable.
Identifiable Non-Human Animal Remains found in Repository 6
The ratio of identifiable to unidentifiable bones, together with the range of species, their relative abundance, and the condition of the bones, may shed some light on how the bones came to be incorporated with the human remains. The collection’s composition of mainly identifiable, mostly complete elements suggests that bones were picked up more or less at random in the vicinity of the monastery at some time or times before the tombs fell into disuse . Species included in the collection included both domestic animals commonly eaten and those not usually consumed: among the food animals were bones of sheep or goats, cattle, pigs, chickens, and a small partridge. Non-food animals included camel, horse, ass, domestic dog, domestic cat, and some type of small rodent (probably rats). None of the bones bore butchering marks, but it may be assumed that the bones of food animals most likely represent the remains of meals or slaughter refuse. Incorporation of non-food animals (excluding the rodents, which probably found their own way into the ossuaries) into the deposits suggests that monastery residents periodically cleaned the grounds of bones. Bones from animals that died on the premises of natural causes -- dogs, cats, and Equids -- were either incorporated into the ossuaries as a convenient disposal place, or because those responsible for cleaning mistakenly identified the bones as human. It is possible that the camel could have been eaten, but the inclusion of most of its vertebral column as well as some of its appendicular skeleton makes this scenario seem less likely. Before being stained by groundwater within the tombs, most of the bones had evidently lain exposed on the ground surface for at least one to two years. Most of the elements were whitened and somewhat brittle, suggesting a relatively short exposure period during which the first stages of weathering took place, and after soft tissues had decomposed.
Edible animals found in the bone collection could potentially be offal from the slaughterhouse, which once operated on the premises. Still, the relative paucity of food animals in the collection, relative to non-food animals, renders the scenario of slaughterhouse cleanup unlikely. As well, a fetal or possibly newborn piglet in the collection (as well as a puppy of similar age) tends to reinforce the idea that the animal bones did not originate mainly from the slaughterhouse, but rather from natural mortality within the institution’s domestic animal population. A secondary source of the animal bones may well have been domestic refuse from residents’ meals, collected from the grounds along with bones from non-food animals at the time(s) of cleanup.
The animal bone collection from the ossuaries of St. Stephen’s monastery is a small but taxonomically diverse collection. In terms of insight into monastic dietary practices, there is little to say, since the collection is at best a palimpsest of activities (culinary and non-culinary use of animals) and at worst a collection of animals that died natural deaths. The diversity of animals and species incorporated, in conjunction with other factors such as bone preservation, suggests that their deposition into the tombs was tertiary in nature. That is, a number of animals died, probably at various times, of natural causes on the monastery grounds and were usually left more or less where they died (given that the non-food animals’ skeletons were generally more complete than edible animals). Food remains were at least occasionally scattered, or became scattered, on the grounds as well. All of these bones remained on the ground surface for an unknown period, but probably not more than a few years. At some point the monastery grounds were cleared of skeletal remains, which were tossed in with the human remains previously interred in the ossuaries on the premises. Therefore, the bones of the food and non-food animals are not in their original places of deposition, having been moved at least once, from place of death/consumption, to original place of deposit, to their final resting-place in the tombs.
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