Fårehyrder, kvægbønder eller svineavlere – En revurdering jernalderens dyrehold


  • Jacob Kveiborg


jernalder, dyrehold


Shepherds, cattle farmers or pig breeders? A re-evaluation of Iron Age animal husbandry

Archaeological finds from prehistoric settlements bear witness to the fact that crop and animal husbandry have constituted an omnipresent part of society since the intro­duction of agriculture. Agriculture must, therefore, have had a decisive influence on the overall organisation of society. This conclusion also applies to the Early Iron Age (c. 500 BC-AD 200), the period in focus here. Our picture of Iron Age animal husbandry is, however, generally uniform and is based, to a great extent, on sources other than the animals themselves.

Stall partitions, bridles and tethers play, therefore, a great role in our understanding of domesticated livestock. The presence of agriculture in all aspects of daily life must, however, have been of significance for the composition of the livestock and animal husbandry must be presumed to have been much more dynamic than shown by our general picture. This appears confirmed by a review of a published and unpublished reports concerning animal bones found at settlements from the period. The evidence indicates that differences existed in the composition of the livestock at a local, regional and inter-regional level. Unfortunately, the collection of animal bones from these sites was often not comprehensive and the representativity of the finds can be questioned.

The number of available analyses of animal bones from Early Iron Age settlements is modest and our knowledge of the composition of the livestock is therefore based on a limited number of finds. The main reason for the lack of exploitation of the animal bone evidence is first and foremost a lack of understanding of the potential and limitations of zoo-archaeology. The study of bones found in an archaeological context has to a great extent been left to non-archaeologists, and in doing so a gap has been created between zoo-­archaeology and traditional archaeology. ­Archaeologists’ understanding of the potential of bone remains is therefore limited and often results in material being collected without any clear aims and objectives.

A review of the bone material from 14 settlements dated to the Early Iron Age indicates that there are overall geographical differences in the composition of the livestock (fig. 1 + appendix). Firstly, there is a dominance of sheep/goat at the Northern Jutish sites around the Limfjord. Secondly, there is marked difference in the proportion of pig in the material from settlements on the Jutish peninsula, and the islands to the west of it, respectively. Accordingly, pig bones make up less than 5% of the ­material at six of the seven Jutish sites, whereas they comprise at least 10% at the Eastern Danish sites from Als, Funen, Zealand, Falster and Bornholm. If the site of Dalshøj on Bornholm is excluded, then pig comprises between 15% and 28% of the investigated material from the Eastern Danish islands. Furthermore, there is a marked difference in the proportion of cattle between Northern Jutland and the rest of Denmark. With the exception of the material from the three Northern ­Jutish tell sites (Nørre Smedegård, Nørre Hedegård and Nørre Tranders), cattle make up just less than half of the identified animal bones from settlements of the period (figs. 2-3).

At the same time, the material from the three Northern Jutish sites suggests that, despite the great similarities in the overall composition of the material, there could have been differences in the primary purpose of keeping the animals. At Nørre Tranders, which lies in the Eastern Lim­fjord area, more than 4000 bones have been identified to species (table 1). An analysis shows that sheep (and goat) were the primary domesticated animals, followed by cattle. Horse was relatively common, whereas pig only constituted an insignificant proportion. Hunting of wild mammals and birds was limited, whereas the collection of molluscs, together with fishing, could have constituted a significant supplement. The significance of fishing is, however, uncertain as the material was collected without the use of sieves. Throughout the tell’s period of use of about 500 years, the composition of the livestock varied, although the overall purpose of keeping, respectively, sheep, cattle and pigs does not appear to have changed significantly (figs. 4-6 + table 2). The dominant role of sheep can also be recognised in the material from the two other tell sites in Northern Jutland (fig. 7). Des­pite large inconsistencies between the material from the three localities, the age estimates for the postcranial bones and lower jaws of cattle and sheep suggest that the primary purpose of keeping animals could have varied. Accordingly, a very large number of slaughtered young cattle are seen at Smedegård, whereas this is not the case at Nørre Hedegård and Nørre Tranders.

The material used was chosen by way of a review of published articles, unpublished undergraduate theses and PhD theses, as well as unpublished reports by the Zoological Museum, Copenhagen University and Moesgård Museum’s Department of Conservation and Environmental Archaeology. The requirements of the material were that it could be dated to the Early Iron Age without any mixing with other periods. It had to be quantified by recording the number of fragments (NISP) and  must be from sites interpreted as ordinary rural settlements. A detailed examination of the Quaternary Zoological Central Register would undoubtedly increase the amount of usable material. It was, however, not the intention to provide a complete overview of all bones from settlement sites of the Early Iron Age, but to identify and elucidate possible differences in the composition of the livestock. The same applies to material from the Late Roman Iron Age, 3rd-4th centuries AD, as there are indications here of an increased differentiation of the settlements whereby some individual sites acquire a more central character. Therefore, the degree to which these were self-sufficient is unknown.

The material used is very varied – both quantitatively and qualitatively. It is therefore only of limited suitability for comparative analyses. With the exception of the material from Smedegård and, in part, that from Nørre Hedegård, the representativity of the material used can be questioned. This is due to the fact that most of it was collected without prior sieving and that several of the assemblages used are of limited size. During the last 35 years, a long series of experiments indicates more-or-less unanimously that a lack of sieving gives a distorted picture of the composition of the zoo-archaeological material – the largest species and the largest bone elements are favoured (fig. 8). Accordingly, the degree to which the composition of the material used reflects the original material or the method of recovering is uncertain.

Cattle occupy a central role in our picture of Iron Age animal husbandry and also appear to be dominant in most of the analysed assemblages. However, in the light of the way in which the material was collected, it is likely that the proportion of cattle in the total livestock was less marked than the bone material and the agrarian historical literature suggest. Houses with a byre and stall partitions have traditionally been used as a basis for calculating the size of the cattle herd and have, in this way, unconsciously emphasised the importance of cattle. However, the composition of the livestock seen in a series of cases where long-houses have burnt down, killing their occupants, shows that sheep, pigs, dogs, cattle and horses all have had a place in the byres (fig. 10). The size of the byres and the number of stall partitions can therefore not be used uncritically to estimate the farmstead’s or the village’s total number of cattle.

It has previously been suggested that the primary role of cattle was of a social or religious character in connection with the demonstration of status, the giving of gifts, as a dowry etc. The role of cattle in the subsistence economy could therefore have been secondary relative to sheep and pigs. The establishment of a cattle herd was therefore associated with great expense, and the farmer’s prestige and status could, accordingly, be read in his ability to maintain as large a cattle herd as possible. At Smedegård, from where we have the best investigated material from the Early Iron Age, the relative proportion of cattle is down at 25%, which is markedly lower than most of the settlements used in this study. Perhaps this indicates an overestimate of the role of cattle in general?

Despite the uncertainty concerning the representativity of the material, the subordinate role of pigs in the bone material from the Jutish sites appears real and can probably be traced back to the Early Bronze Age in Northern Jutland. The demonstrated differences between sites at a local, regional and inter-regional level can therefore not be explained away as being due solely to the lack of sieving. They are probably an expression of an unspecified diversity in the composition of the livestock – dependant on culturally and ­ecologically determined factors. If we are to have any expectations of obtaining a more detailed picture of animal husbandry in the Early Iron Age and other periods of prehistory it is, however, necessary to improve the recovery methods employed and to integrate the bone material into the ­archaeological analysis to the same extent as the other archaeological source materials. Only in this way will the potential of the material be exploited optimally as a source of information on Iron Age society.

Jacob Kveiborg
Moesgård Museum





Kveiborg, J. (2008). Fårehyrder, kvægbønder eller svineavlere – En revurdering jernalderens dyrehold. Kuml, 57(57), 59–100. Hentet fra https://tidsskrift.dk/kuml/article/view/24657