Tuesday, January 21, 2014

An Unusual Burial at Fort Meigs, Ohio

In his lengthy discussion of this find over at the Ohio Historical Society Archaeology blog, Bill Pickard mentions a phenomenon familiar to most archaeologists: you always find the most interesting and complicated stuff on the last day of fieldwork.

This was the case during an archaeological survey at the site of Fort Meigs' new visitor's center back in 2001. An earthmover stripped the topsoil from the site while archaeologists examined the exposed subsoil for evidence of pits or other features that might have been dug deep into the ground. As the backhoe cleared the last corner of the dig, someone spotted a piece of rusted metal. They thought it might have been a bit of shrapnel from an artillery bomb...but it turned out to be a horseshoe. You find a lot of horseshoes at historical archaeological sites, but they're usually not still attached to the horse.

Photo of the Fort Meigs horse burial, courtesy of Ohiohistory.org
In fact, there were two horses, one likely a large draft horse (nicknamed "Big Horse" by the excavators), the other a smaller, lighter cavalry horse (nicknamed, naturally, "Little Horse"). Initially, the archaeologists were hesitant to make too much of the discovery. Soldiers had horses, and horses died in battles. All those horses had to end up somewhere, right? But the more they thought about it, the more questions they had. The horses are facing each other, their limbs crossed - was this accidental, just the way the animals fell into the burial pit? Or were they deliberately arranged in this face-to-face position, and if so, why? Why were these two animals buried together? And why were they buried at all? Isn't that a lot of effort? Wouldn't cremation be easier?

More details from Bill Pickard's discussion of the burial at Ohiohistory.org:
Aside from the obvious size difference, there were other features that defined the two animals, in particular their shoes. Big Horse was a large, robust animal, possibly even a mule. Its shoes were large, thick items with aggressive calks, well suited for an animal tasked with heavy lifting and pulling. The shoes appeared to be individually forged items as they were slightly different one to the next, made and fitted for this particular animal. There were just three shoes recovered with Big Horse, the two rear shoes and the right front shoe. The left front shoe was missing but nail fragments immediately below that hoof indicates it was removed after the horse was down. Their non-standard design tends to rule out that it was removed as a replacement or a spare for another horse. Little Horse was about three quarters the size of its partner with a much more gracile skeletal structure. A single left rear shoe was recovered with this animal. Unlike the bold nature of the shoes on Big Horse, this shoe was small, thin and almost flat, a shoe likely built for running or speed and not for heavy exertions. Iron nail fragments found adjacent to the right front hoof strongly indicates, as in the case of its larger companion, that the shoe had been removed sometime after Little Horse had been put down. It’s an interesting phenomenon, and after the passage of nearly two hundred years it’s hard to say exactly what the motivation might have been to remove the shoes from the horses.
A further curiosity was uncovered as they began removing the bones from the burial spot: a complete pig's head (but just the head) had been buried along with the horses in the pit. So: two horses, buried together, each having had a single shoe removed, accompanied by the head of a pig. Was this a commonplace disposal of animal remains, or is there something more to it?

These are (according to the Fort Meigs museum) the first horses ever recovered from a War of 1812 archaeological site. There is even a video about their discovery. Can somebody in Ohio please go and watch the video and tell us more?

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