Pre-55BCE: Domesticating, breeding and distributing horses nationwide White Horse, Dorset, copied from gearthhacks

From The Times

Horses were moved over long distances in pre-Roman Britain, recent analysis has shown. Previous theories that horses were bred on specialised ranches are now joined by evidence that animals may have been traded to southern England from as far away as Wales or Scotland.

The absence of young horses’ bones from some Iron Age sites, such as the Gussage All Saints settlement in Dorset, suggested that they had bred elsewhere; the capture and breaking of wild animals, perhaps similar to the feral herds of the New Forest and Dartmoor, seemed a likely source. The high proportion of stallion bones, as at Danebury hillfort in Hampshire, was also an argument for non-controlled herds, since a domesticated herd needs few stallions and many mares.

On the other hand, Julius Caesar’s claim that the Iron Age ruler Cassivelaunus had 4,000 chariots, and thus 8,000 chariot horses, at his disposal led the late Peter Reynolds to infer that horse breeding was a large operation, carried on at what were effectively stud farms. The presence of foal bones at only a few Iron Age sites supports such a breeder-customer model.

Analysis of horse teeth from two Iron Age sites near Winchester now indicates that breeder and recipient may not have lived close together, although the sample is as yet too small for firm conclusions to be drawn. One tooth each from the Rooksdown and Bury Hill sites, dating to the later centuries BC, were assayed for strontium-isotope content, examining the ratio between strontium-86 and strontium-87, which varies with the local geology, soil and groundwater content, and which is fixed in the tooth enamel through the early years of life as the teeth form.

Reporting in Archaeometry, Dr Robin Bendry and colleagues note that comparison with the teeth of domestic food animals from the sites, which could be assumed to be locally bred, and also human burials from Winchester, showed that the Bury Hill horse had been bred locally, although whether it was tamed or domesticated was not indicated. The Rooksdown specimen, however, showed a different pattern: possible areas for its origin include Devon and Cornwall, Wales, parts of northwest England and Scotland, or even parts of the Continent. The investigators note that similarly distant origins have been documented for humans buried in the Stonehenge area, although almost two millennia older than the Rookswood horse.

“The data show that horses were moved over great distances,” they conclude, “evidence for long-distance movement perhaps through trade or exchange.”

Archaeometry 51: 140-150.


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