The importance of archeology for historical linguistics, part 3

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The cattle head-and-hooves offering in this recently unearthed burial caught my attention:

Since the article is not long and is full of extremely interesting and valuable information, I copy it below.

First, however, I should note that Elizabeth J. W. Barber long ago postulated that the horse head-and-hooves sacrifices had been preceded by cattle head-and-hooves sacrifices, before horses became widespread.  She did so on the basis of the cattle heads and hooves above the royal tombs at Alaca Höyük, ca. 2600 BCE in Anatolia (see The Dancing Goddesses, pp. 308-12 and in Festschrift for J. P. Mallory). Judging from this new archeological evidence from Britain, it would appear that she was right.

The cattle head-and-hooves sacrifices have important Eurasian implications, since horse head-and-hooves sacrifices are found all the way across the continent to China.  For the eastward spread of this sacrificial practice, see Victor H. Mair, “Horse Sacrifices and Sacred Groves among the North(west)ern Peoples of East Asia”, Ouya xuekan 欧亚学刊 (Eurasian Studies), 6 (Beijing:  Zhonghua shuju, 2007), 22-53; also available as chapter 11 in Victor H. Mair, China and Beyond:  A Collection of Essays (Amherst, NY:  Cambria, 2013).

Since, as we shall see in the Live Science article, the burial at Lechlade-on-Thames in all likelihood belonged to the Beaker Culture, this gives us an idea of its possible ethnolinguistic affiliations.

James Mallory has suggested (2013) that the Beaker culture was possibly associated with a hypothetical cluster of Indo-European dialects, termed "North-West Indo-European", which may have been a precursor of the subsequent Celtic, Italic, Germanic and Balto-Slavic branches.

Earlier theories suggested a link to the hypothesised Italo-Celtic, or Proto-Celtic languages, although the Beaker period likely preceded these. The subsequent Urnfield culture has been more often linked to proposed subgroups such as Italo-Celtic.


In a personal communication, Mallory remarked:

It will fall somewhere between a Late Indo-European ancestral to at least Celtic plus, perhaps, languages that did not survive into the historical record, or Proto-Celtic. It is a very difficult problem because in Britain and Ireland it could be regarded by many as the smoking gun that points to the Celtic migration to Ireland but the date – at c 2300 BC – is so early compared to where most place Proto-Celtic and also to the level of similarity in the earliest attested Celtic languages.

Asko Parpola sent in this supporting information:

This new discovery of the burial at Lechlade-on-Thames reflects the coming of the Proto-Celtic speakers to the British Isles. Recent research suggests that the Celtic branch came into being with the Bell Beaker culture that developed from Yamnaya origins in  the Iberian Peninsula and spread quickly over wide areas in western Europe.  See:

Heyd, Volker, 2013. Europe 2500 to 2200 BC: Between expiring ideologies and emerging complexity. Pp. 47-67 in: A. Harding & H. Fokkens (eds.), The Oxford handbook of the European Bronze Age. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Heyd, Volker, Harry Fokkens, Kristian Kristiansen & Karl-Göran Sjögren, 2018. SI  1 — Archaeological background of the Beaker complex. doi:10.1038/nature25738 [Research: Supplementary Information]

At least Beaker Culture would appear to be some sort of IE, and perhaps with affinity to early Celtic, or pre-proto-Celtic, as Janhunen might say.  Of course, this does not tell us with any certainty what language the people who made the burial at Lechlade-on-Thames actually spoke, but it gives us an idea of what hypotheses we might entertain for future investigations. 

Another key point which needs to be made is that, no matter what language the Lechlade-on-Thames people spoke, their custom of head-and-hooves sacrifice may have been shared with people who spoke another language or other languages.

Much of the evidence for early horse riding, horse sacrifices, and other customs and culture related to horses is found among Indo-Iranian speakers, especially Iranians (e.g., Scythians, Sakas).  It is conceivable that Indo-Iranian speakers who were masters of the horse and who performed horse head-and-hooves burials were emulating the earlier cattle head-and-hooves burials of another ethnolinguistic group when they did so.  Moreover, as those who performed horse head-and-hooves burials moved eastward, they might well have shared this burial practice with other groups they encountered as they went.

Archaeologists have unearthed the remains of a Bronze Age chieftain buried with profound wealth: Instead of receiving just one cattle "head and hoof" offering in his grave, a prize item reserved for VIP burials of that age, the chieftain had four such offerings.

Even more confounding was the discovery of another burial near the chieftain's remains, that of an older man buried in a seated position, according to Foundations Archaeology, a British-based archaeological consultancy. The older man was buried with one head and hoof offering and nothing else, said Andy Hood, an archaeologist with Foundations Archaeology, who helped excavate the site.

"One of the mysteries is, what was the relationship between those two men?" Hood told Live Science. The two likely had some type of social bond, but it's unclear why they were buried so close to each other, he said.

Archaeologists found the burials in 2017, ahead of the construction of a skate park in Lechlade-on-Thames, a town in the southwestern county of Gloucestershire, England. Radiocarbon dating revealed that the two men lived in about 2200 B.C.

The chieftain's burial held the skulls and hooves from four different cattle, Hood said. Head and hoof burial offerings were practiced in Europe during the Bronze Age, but were less common in Britain. "In fact, all previous examples here [in the U.K.] have been single cattle burials, so the Lechlade burial is unique in this regard," because it had four, Hood said. 

"It's quite a significant investment of wealth to go into the ground," Hood added. "There's a chance that these animals were slaughtered as part of a ceremony related to the burial."

The age and style of the burials, as well as artifacts found near the chieftain, suggest that these men were part of the Beaker culture, named for its beaker-like ceramic pots. According to recent DNA studies, the people in this culture arrived from mainland Europe around 2400 B.C. They were an impressive lot who might have been the first to use copper and bronze in Britain, "so we think that their arrival is a fairly important moment in prehistory," Hood said.

Parting package

The Beaker culture commonly buried its dead with a "standard package" of grave goods: a beaker pot, a copper dagger, a stone wrist guard used by archers, a "strike-a-light kit," amber beads and sometimes a cattle head and hoof offering, Hood said.

The chieftain had all these goods, except for the beaker pot, the archaeologists found. Because of the missing piece, "we think that this individual was a revered 'specialist' within Beaker society — somebody who wasn't associated with the direct symbolism attached to the Beaker pot itself," Hood said.

Even so, his grave goods were impressive and included: a copper dagger with with a whale-bone pommel (the round knob at the end of the handle), a stone wrist guard, an amber bead, a flint and iron pyrite for starting a fire, and the cattle offerings.

The chieftain was buried at the center of a circular ditch that, at the time of burial, was a barrow, meaning that it had soil piled on top of it. Next to him, just off-center but still within the circular enclosure, were the remains of the older man, who was about 50 to 60 years old when he died. 

Other news outlets have speculated that this older man was a shaman who may have been sacrificed to help the chieftain in the afterlife, but there is no evidence to support those claims, Hood said.

"The idea of him being a 'shaman' was postulated by some British newspapers," Hood said, adding that "there is no evidence that he was sacrificed."

Still, the older man's burial is odd. "He was buried in an unusual 'seated' position — his legs were present extending downwards towards the base of his grave pit," Hood said. "We haven't found a direct parallel elsewhere in Bronze Age Britain."

Most people buried in Bronze Age Britain were arranged in a crouched position on their sides, as the chieftain was. So the older man's proximity to the chieftain, as well as the man's lack of a Beaker "package" and strange burial position, may remain a mystery for the ages.


Selected readings



  1. Scott P. said,

    June 3, 2020 @ 10:25 am

    This new discovery of the burial at Lechlade-on-Thames reflects the coming of the Proto-Celtic speakers to the British Isles

    As an archaeologist, I must always reiterate — pots (or cattle sacrifices, or languages) are not people. Just because you see a new element of material culture doesn't mean you have an influx of a new population. Both the spread of the campaniform pottery tradition and the Celtiberian language in Spain used to be thought the result of a migration of new peoples, but both of those have been thrown into serious question over the last few decades.

  2. Slumbery said,

    June 3, 2020 @ 2:10 pm

    Scott P.

    Regardless of the level of correlation between pots and people in general, we know that in this specific case there was a population turnover in the British Isles around the mid-3th millennia BC, just when Bell Beaker arrived. We also know that the inflow of new population probably had its roots in the Netherlands + wider Rhine region. We know this because of genetic analysis of ancient people. Indeed however, the change of material culture alone is not the decisive information.
    The weak part of what Parpola says is not the coming of new people, but the proto-Celtic part. We have no way to actually know that, it is just speculation. And there is no reason to push back the linguistic-based time estimation of the formation of Celtic, just because there was a population turnover in a relevant region and we are tempted to build it in.

  3. Scott P. said,

    June 3, 2020 @ 3:54 pm


    I agree with what you say, though genetic analysis is also prone to misinterpretation.

  4. Rob said,

    June 6, 2020 @ 7:25 pm

    Any evaluation of BBC needs to account for the distribution of non-IE, incl Vasconic languages , in Western Europe ; which are the demographic ancestors of BBC
    And oft circulated theorem that they descend from previous farmers is not supported anthropologically
    We may speculate that BBC spoke an early but extinct form of IE; whatever we make of that ; Celtic -like languages probably expanded considerably later

  5. Justin said,

    June 7, 2020 @ 4:31 pm

    Hi Scott,

    Celtiberian languages are likely to have been spread through migrations as the few Celtiberian samples which have been tested show specific Central European related ancestry, not present in Iberia before.

  6. SM said,

    June 8, 2020 @ 4:10 am

    One parallel: Adad shows up in texts from the highlands of western Iran from the time of Anubani of Lullubi (~2300 BCE) to the Persepolis archives (5th century BCE). That does not mean that the people of western Iran spoke Semitic languages or were descended from Semitic speakers, it means that they thought their lowland neighbours' storm god was nifty.

  7. Rodger C said,

    June 8, 2020 @ 9:03 am

    "What are these hurricanes about? We never had them in Transoxiana."

    "Adad makes them."


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