Horse country: keeping – and eating – Iron Age horses at Ludgershall

The animal bone recovered from Middle Iron Age pits by CA Andover at Drummond Park, on the western outskirts of Ludgershall, in 2021 is in many ways entirely typical. The pits, which were some of the earliest features uncovered on this multi-period site, were probably large grain storage pits, suggesting that a relatively large Middle Iron Age settlement once lay close to the site. Most of the bone came from these pits and, in common with many sites of this period, most of it related to livestock (cattle, sheep, pig), with dog and horse bone.

A half-sectioned Middle Iron Age pit at Drummond Park
A half-sectioned Middle Iron Age pit at Drummond Park

Horse bones regularly occur on Iron Age sites, but they tend to contribute only a very small proportion of bones. This varies from site to site and region to region, but at Drummond Park there were more horse bones than the average: it was the third most common identified species. This includes Drummond Park in a small group of similar sites in the local area with more horse bone than the average.

The decapitated horse skull
The decapitated horse skull

Horse bones not only occurred randomly but also in articulated sections or as associated parts of the skeleton. These included a segment of neck, a pair of jaws (but from two different animals), and a skull, and these all appeared to have been deliberately placed, and therefore special in some way. Nevertheless, after carefully examining the horse bones, it was clear that many were butchered,  including the associated parts. The style of butchery was similar between horses and cattle, suggesting that both were prepared in a similar way and eaten. The sections of horse skeleton were also probably butchery waste – the skull has cut marks showing where the animal was decapitated.

On the other hand, the horse bone (particularly the associated parts) generally occurred in pits that contained higher concentrations of other bone so, whilst horses were butchered and most likely eaten, they were disposed of with larger dumps of material. Perhaps these dumps represent specific episodes of greater meat consumption: was horse meat only eaten on special occasions?

Iron Age horses were about the size of a modern pony  (Photo: R J Higginson)
Iron Age horses were about the size of a modern pony (Photo: R J Higginson, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The horse bones from Drummond Park are typical of animals of the period – more like a pony. They ranged in age, the youngest around four years old, the oldest probably 15. Very young horses are rare on Iron Age sites, and horses may have been semi-feral or raised at specialist sites. The bones from Ludgershall are typical in this respect as they only relate to sub-adult and adult horses, but they do reflect how horses may have been regarded or understood during the Iron Age. They were less common than other domesticated animals, possibly looked after differently, and often included in ‘special’ deposits of material, but also, as here, often eaten in the same way as cattle. They may have had connotations of power or status, perhaps linked to travel, speed or warfare. Our understanding of these issues evolves with each find, and helps us gain a greater appreciation of the concerns of the people who kept horses in the Iron Age.

Clare Randall

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