These 28 Horses Were Buried in an Ancient Mass Grave. How Did They Die?

Archaeologists are puzzled by the 2,000-year-old burial site uncovered in central France

The graves were found in central France during an excavation of a site containing mostly fifth- and sixth-century development. François Goulin / INRAP

Archaeologists in France have discovered the mass graves of 28 horses, arranged in rows some 2,000 years ago. Researchers think the equines were all buried at the same time—and that they may have been casualties of the Gallic Wars.

The skeletons were found on a 3.2-acre excavation site near Villedieu-sur-Indre in central France, about 150 miles south of Paris, according to a statement from the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP). Much of the site dates to the late fifth and sixth centuries: During a recent examination, researchers discovered medieval buildings, ditches and a path.

Alongside these finds, they also discovered nine pits containing the bones of horses, all of which were much older. Two of these pits have been excavated so far, and radiocarbon dating suggests the burials date to between 100 B.C.E. and 100 C.E.

Researchers think the horses may have been sacrificed in a ritual or killed in battle. Hamid Azmoun / INRAP

One of the excavated pits contains ten male horses, all of whom lived at least four years. Each stallion lies on his right side, facing south. As INRAP writes, the animals were “carefully” organized in two rows and two layers. The second pit contains just two horses of the same gender and age. The animals are small—measuring just four feet from neck to hoof—and their features are “characteristic of Gallic livestock,” per Popular Mechanics’ Tim Newcomb.

Archaeologists are still excavating the other graves, but emerging skulls and hip bones indicate the presence of at least 28 horses, according to the statement. Because of the skeletons’ arrangement, researchers think the animals were buried simultaneously and arranged intentionally.

“The horses were carefully placed in the pits,” Séverine Braguier, a zooarchaeologist at INRAP, tells Newsweek’s Aristos Georgiou. “They were not thrown away, but installed next to each other. It shows respect for the animal.”

The horses’ cause of death remains mysterious. Because all the animals are male, researchers have ruled out an epidemic. Another possibility is that the animals were sacrificed “as part of a complex ritual,” writes INRAP, per Google Translate. “The number of horses sacrificed constitutes a massive drain on the heart of a herd. This heavy investment then testifies to the importance of the sacrifice.”

However, the burials’ similarity to other ancient sites suggests a different theory.

As INRAP writes, the graves are reminiscent of other ancient equine burials in the Gergovie plain, which once hosted battles between the armies of Rome and Gaul (present-day France). In the first century B.C.E., the Roman emperor Julius Caesar battled Gallics in the same region as the recently discovered graves, per Popular Mechanics. The researchers wonder whether the ancient horses died in combat before being buried en masse.

Des chevaux gaulois ont-ils été sacrifiés à Villedieu-sur-Indre (Indre) ?

Still, the researchers can’t yet draw conclusions about this “extraordinary” find, as INRAP’s Isabelle Pichon, head of the archaeological operation, tells the Guardian’s Kim Willsher.

“We think because of where they were buried that they were linked to the Gallic wars waged by Julius Caesar in the first century B.C.E., but this is still just a theory,” says Pichon. “We know there was an important battle and the Roman army passed not far from here, but we have so little evidence, and so far we have found nothing to indicate how they died. However, we can’t exclude that it was a ritual burial, even though there were no objects buried with the horses.”

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