Hidden in a compartment in Tipperary Museum’s new ‘Death and Faith’ section is not something you would expect to see - portions of a Horses skull and teeth! This may seem strange but the back story of this object is rather interesting.
To give this more context, let’s go back to the summer of 1993 and to the village of Drangan here in Tipperary. Renovation work was being carried out on the ‘old school’ building as it was called locally. This building started its life as a church when it was first built in 1806.
Some 47 years later in 1853 the current Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception, was built. The older, 1806 church building was then used as a boy’s school right up until 1967 when a new premises was built to house the school. The original 1806 church building subsequently fell into disrepair which brings us back to the renovation work. It was at this time that those working on the renovations of the old church had unearthed some bones in the foundation of the building.
This horse skull was found in a few sections, mandible or lower jaw missing and teeth were dislodged. There was no evidence of the rest of the skeleton which indicates that the skull was buried on its own. That in itself raises a lot of questions… why would you do this? What does it signify?? It was clearly no accident…
In actual fact, the burial of horse skulls dates back to the Iron Age and seems to have been a common practice right up until the 19th century, not just in Ireland but in the UK and Europe. In archaeological terms it is known as a foundation deposit or a domestic ritual depending what source you read. The word ‘Ritual’ brings up some intense connotations, but it’s much more common place than you would think. We also have ritualistic aspects in modern Irish culture. For example some people still place a piece of cloth outside their home on the eve of St. Bridget’s day. The idea being that St. Bridget will bless it during the night and it can be used to heal the sick and bless the home. This would be classed as a domestic ritual. In general terms, ‘Domestic Ritual’ means how religious and domestic life were intertwined, how the sacred and domestic function overlaps. How their religious practices links in with their everyday life.
The practice of depositing horse skulls in the foundation of a home or other buildings began in Prehistory. But it wasn’t just horse skulls that were deposited, other items such as axe heads, pottery, arrow heads and even some human remains have been found in some sites in Europe and further afield. At different periods in time the practice and the meaning of ‘Domestic Rituals’ has changed from culture to culture. But one thing that is constant is the use of domestic animals, particularly the horse.
But the real questions is why they did this. Taking the evidence above, coupled with the absence of written sources from this time period, the reasons why they did such things is purely speculation. To truly understand the ritualistic reasoning’s of these people, their religious beliefs must be taken into account, but unfortunately as the beginning of this phenomenon is prehistoric, people had no written sources. Therefore other theories have been formed based on what has been found. One is that they brought good luck to the building and those who inhabited it and protected them from supernatural threats
Looking at the more modern examples of this there is evidence to suggest that the burial of horse skulls had a significant purpose. These people believed that the placing of a horse skull in the foundation of a building would promote the acoustics of that building. So being a church you can see where they were going with this. There are also sources which say the placing of a horse skull was to ward off evil. Ireland has always been a very superstitious country and we seem to hold on to these beliefs in one way or another, which in our case today is quite fortunate for our understanding of such practices.
In 1938 the Irish folklore commission conducted a survey in Ireland asking about local traditions involving the burial of horse skulls. The results showed that almost every area of the country, people reported knowing about this phenomenon and 99% of the individuals who said they were aware of the practice said it was relating to the acoustics of the building.
Interestingly a folklorist called Sean O’ Suilleabhian, in 1945 published a reaction to this survey and his opinion was that the acoustic reasoning for the burial of horse skulls was only a secondary factor. He wrote that the original ritual reasons had been forgotten over the years and lost to history.
Other academics have since said that they don’t agree with O’Suilleabhian as evidence in Sweden relating to horse skull deposits said that they were frequently buried alongside acoustic pots in thrashing barns. Therefore is possible that acoustics were the primary function of this modern phenomenon. But it’s important to realise that we don’t need to separate the ritual from the practical reasons, one could easily evolve from the other in some way or another.
Another element of this story is the use of the horse in particular. The horse as an animal was highly respected in ancient Ireland. They were a prized possession and a status symbol. This is really no surprise as the impact the animal had on various areas of daily life justifies it. The horse was not only used for daily farming and travel, but also for battle and survival.
There are many references to horses in Irish and other Celtic mythology and art. For example the Ulster cycle mentions the story of the Táin Bó Cúailnge. This is predominantly about a bull but in this story there are a number of sections relating to chariot warfare, and it emphasizes the importance of the horse. The two horses mentioned by name in the story were said to have risen from a lake and were trained by Cú Chulainn himself for battle. An interesting aspect also relates to the cliffs of Moher where the story goes that the Tuatha de Danann leapt from the cliffs and turned into horses. So the horse has a mythological importance as well as importance in daily life.
This discovery in Drangan also raises another, final question. Was the horse killed for this purpose? In this particular instance, it is quite hard to say. The section of the skull which attaches to the neck there are some marks which could well be butcher marks, skinning marks or even marks left from the excavation process. From looking at the teeth the horse it is quite mature in age and it is hard to ascertain whether the horse died of old age or was killed for this purpose. It is likely that its burial is so modern in age it probably died of old age and was then used.
Looking at this question from an Iron Age point of view, if the horse was so important, would they just kill it for their religious rituals? But we have to remember that this practice began during the same era as the Irish bog bodies date to. From studies carried out on the bog bodies it is clear that these individuals were not of a low standing in society, they were high status individuals. No signs of hard work and well fed, and some are of the opinion they may have been kings. So if they purposefully sacrificed their kings, it is unlikely that the horse would be spared -particularly as that animal was important to them in many ways.
What makes Ireland so interesting, is that even though we are a predominantly Catholic country, we didn’t become so overnight. Over time we have managed to meld our pagan beliefs with our Catholic traditions and unknowingly carried on the traditions of ancient Ireland. Unfortunately some of those traditions are slowly dying out and like the domestic rituals mentioned above, will be lost to history unless we can record and preserve them.