Andrew James John Mackenzie
an historiography
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Do Cows go to Heaven, too?


In Oakington, just outside of Cambridge, a collection of unearthed animal bones in a human grave has aroused a lot of interest. The grave was discovered as part of a larger fifth century cemetery, the burials of men and their typical grave goods being the norm. Realising the grave contained both a human and quadrupedal skeleton, archaeologists were excited to discover what they thought was another horse burial (coupled with the two others also discovered at the site). Their astonishment peaked upon realising that the skeleton was female, indeed all 31 of horse burials found in the UK have belonged to men. What really astounded them, however, was that rather than another equine burial this was the first European ritualised burial of a person and a common domestic cow.


The grave of a person with their horse often denotes an individual of significant status and wealth, the association with the warrior class, aristocracy and royalty all too apparent. The fact that this is the grave of a woman of high status is of much further significance to archaeologists, and helps to explain why this is so momentous. Naturally, she is adorned with grave goods characteristic of the elite, including copper alloy brooches, three necklaces and hundreds of amber and glass beads. Moreover, according to Dr. Duncan Sayer of the University of Central Lancashire, “[s]he also had a complete chatelaine [keychain] set, which is an iron girdle and a symbol of her status…It indicates that she had access to wealth”


The cow in itself is also a distinctive symbol of affluence. They were a prized commodity to society, supplying dairy products and a high quality source of meat often at a cost of much time and resources to keep it sustained. The death of this cow would signify an obvious loss for the community. Dr Faye Simpson, joint director of the excavation at Manchester Metropolitan University, contends that:
 
"They would have wanted to give her something really important to show respect and they wouldn't have done that for just anybody…That's why we don't find cows with burials,"
 
This ritualistic act of interning the cow in the grave of this woman is extremely significant, there are questions abundant. Just how significant was her position in society to warrant such an accolade? Was the animal purposefully sacrificed in her honour? Does this grave change our perception of gender in ancient British society? These are questions which may never be solved, though speculation will continue to abound. There is certainly no question of her high status, the grave goods notwithstanding:
 
“She is almost certainly a regional elite – a matriarchal figure buried with the objects that describe her identity to the people who attended her funeral.”
 
What is truly significant is that this evidence exists in the archaeological record, blurring the lines between the agrarian elite, gender roles/values and microeconomics, redefining opinions traditionally held of ancient British communities. One hopes that such similar discoveries are made, helping to explode the common conventions we have come to define as gender and class in the ancient world.
 

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For more about the excavation, please feel free to follow them on Twitter @oakingtondig.

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