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[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #12: Aurochs

February 16, 2021
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In 2021, I am blogging an A-Z compendium of human interactions with species in the British landscape. A list of references for information used in this series can be found here. Today’s entry is another animal, and another relatively recent extinction, albeit one that became extinct in Britain a long time before it became globally extinct.

Part of an aurochs skull showing large horns on a museum wall
Aurochs (Bos primigenius) skull on display in Manchester Museum. Photo by Matt Law, CC BY-SA 4.0

Aurochs
Bos primigenius (Bojanus, 1827)

The wild ancestor of domestic cattle, the aurochs (plural aurochsen) was widely distributed across Europe, North Africa, and Asia into China, but was not present in Ireland. Aurochsen were large cattle, with bulls standing up to 1.8m in height at the shoulder, and cows 1.5m. Bulls would have weighed around 1000kg. They were thought to graze on grass, but also to browse trees, and may have moved seasonally between woodland and river valley marshland. As competition with humans for the fertile low-lying land they had favoured increased with the wider adoption of agriculture, they may have been forced into more marginal woodlands. Their extinction in Britain appears to have happened during the second millennium BC, with the latest known finds of aurochs bones occurring at Charterhouse Warren Farm in the Mendip Hills and at Porlock Weir, both in Somerset. The last known aurochs in the world died in the Jaktorów Forest in central Poland in AD 1627. Direct evidence of their hunting is occasionally found, for example from Mesolithic deposits at Flixton School House Farm, on the edges of the former Lake Flixton in Yorkshire. A Bronze Age aurochs burial is known from Holloway Lake, Harmondsworth, where a dismembered aurochs was interred with six barbed and tanged arrowheads.

They would have been hunted for food, but other use could be made of the carcass. A scraper made from an aurochs metapodial was found at the Mesolithic site of Star Carr in Yorkshire. Drinking cups made of aurochs horns were among the finds at the early medieval Sutton Hoo ship burial. Aurochs bone scoops are known from Neolithic and early Bronze Age contexts at Lower Mill Farm, Stanwell, London, and from Stonehenge, West Kennet, and Windmill Hill. These may have been used for skinning animal hides. Hunting aurochsen would have been a dangerous activity. An aurochs find from a pit in Hillingdon gives some clue how this might have been achieved: four barbed and tanged arrowheads were found in the area of the ribs and pelvis, and two more amongst the lower leg bones, suggesting that the animal had been stalked from behind and wounded and succumbed to exhaustion.

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