In June, French archaeologists made a stunning discovery in the northeastern city of Woippy, France, near the German border, when they uncovered a cemetery from the fifth century AD.
Over five weeks, archaeologists uncovered eight tombs in a state of great preservation, including the skeletons of eight humans. Included in the tombs were terracotta plates, jugs and a collection of glass perfume vases and goblets.
The skeletons included adults and young adults who researchers believe were buried in ceremonial clothing because belt buckles were found within the skeletons. Archaeologists said it was difficult to determine the class of the individuals, partly because there were no weapons, commonly found in burials of high-ranking officials.
But the most incredible find was the complete skeleton of a what they initially believed to be a horse, buried at the same time of the humans. Early media reports headlined the discovery as a beloved knight’s horse. This is the first discovery of an intentional burial of a horse in this region of France.
"The animal was laid on its left side. It is gently reposed and was the subject of the burial," said Gael Brkoejewitsch, the chief archaeologist of the dig. The animal was buried near the head of a human, who may have been its owner. Like the humans, a terracotta plate was discovered in front of the muzzle of the animal. At the time of the discovery, Brkoejewitsch said, "this horse must have accompanied its rider in death and he must have been someone of high rank." Offers of milk, wine, and perfume were found in the tomb.
Because of the rarity of such a find, archaeologist are unsure of the origin of the occupants but believe they may be Germanic with high social ranking. Horse burials were frequent after the fifth century AD among German rituals. Brkoejewitsch said it was very rare in the fourth and fifth centuries, and certainly rarer before that period. "What is astonishing here," she said, "was that this rite was current among the Celts but we had never discovered such a practice here."
The area surrounding Woippy is known for its ancient Celtic settlements dating back to the Iron Age. In the fifth century AD, the area would have been a part of Gaul. By the end of the century, Gaul was united by the Frankish king, Clovis I.
Along with the cemetery, archaeologists found remnants of a settlement, including buildings and a grain stockage.
When the researchers ended the dig and returned to the lab to investigate their finds, they made another shocking discovery in late September: what they thought was a horse was actually a mule. A mule is the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse. The identification was made by Olivier Putelat, an archaeozoologist at Interdepartmental Rhenish Archaeology of Pôle.
The researcher examined the animal's remains to determine its classification. "I could define that it seemed like a mule because of the form of its teeth, the molars and premolars." Researchers believe the beast weighed 400 kilos (881 pounds) and was not an animal that would have been slaughtered. "It was not just thrown there like an animal that was no longer of use. It was put there carefully, with the care of respect. The way it was placed in the ground with a dish to feed from is very rare for this period." And what is more, is the nature of this type of animal. "One would not have slaughtered a mule like that. It is a difficult animal to produce and very appreciated for their robustness, their resistance, and their sure-footedness."
To own such an animal for work, such as transporting goods, with the qualities of both a horse and a donkey, would denote a certain privilege.
Archaeologists have two interpretations of the mule in the tomb. "It is difficult to know what motivated this gesture," said Putelat."One, it could be a sign of wealth, to show that the owner had the means to own something so expensive and desired. Two, the animal is there to accompany the dead to the other side. We see that often in Germanic rituals: dogs, horses ... we distinguish them between animals for food -- chicken or pigs -- and the accompaniment of the dead."