Sunday, 28 July 2013

How to milk an auroch -- part one

Bos Longifrons on  a British
Celtic bucket mount. Image
Cow's head bucket mounts are a very familiar object in British early Celtic art. The mount connects the handle to the top edge of a milking bucket. In all but one example, the species of cow depicted is Bos Longifrons – often still called the “Celtic shorthorn”. In all examples, the cow's face looks out from the side of the bucket, and is best seen from that viewpoint. Most of these seem to date to the early first century AD.

British Celtic bucket mount which apparently depicts
the auroch. Circa 200 BC. In curent coll.
The single exception to the above is this example which differs in all points. First, the species appears to be Bos Primigenius, better known as the auroch. Aurochs are depicted in early cave paintings and are thought to have gone extinct in Britain during the Bronze Age, although they lasted on the continent until the seventeenth century. Caesar talks of them in his commentaries (VI, 28):

“... an animal somewhat smaller than the elephant, with the appearance, colour and shape of a bull. They are very strong and agile, and attack every man and beast they catch sight of. The natives [Germans]take great pains to trap them in pits, and then kill them. This arduous sport toughens the young men and keeps them and keeps them in training; and those who kill the largest number exhibit the horns in public to show what they have done, and earn high praise. It is impossible to domesticate or tame the aurochs, even if it is caught young. The horns are much larger than those of our oxen, and of quite different shape and appearance. The Germans prize them greatly: they mount the rims with silver and use them as drinking-cups at their grandest banquets.”

Much earlier, Herodotus (4, 183) is thought to have been referring to the auroch when he wrote “... the cows walk backwards as they graze; the reason for this habit is that their horns curve forwards – so much so that if they walk forwards as they graze, the horns stick into the ground in front of them, and so they move backwards.”

The second difference between this mount and the common sort is the way it is attached to the bucket: instead of being an appliqué facing outwards on the side of the bucket, the mount is attached so that the cow's head faces upwards where it would face the person using the milking bucket. This is an uncommon feature in early Celtic art: in a few examples, objects were decorated to be seen best by the person using the object, and not by another observer. This fact was first discussed by Sir Cyril Fox in Pattern and Purpose: A Survey of Early Celtic Art in Britain, National Museum of Wales, 1958, p. 23.

The mount is of bronze, 40 mm wide, 25 mm deep, and 20 mm high and with a smooth, black patina. It was found in the mid-eighties near St. Albans in Hertfordshire (the ancient Verolamium) in the territory of the Catuvellauni.

So did the Celts actually manage to tame the auroch at some point? Does this mount depict a real descendant of the wild auroch, or another species with some primitive features? In future episodes, we will look at these questions as well as modern attempts to bring back the wild auroch from its extinction.  

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