Cellar dweller: Researchers find a “sunken ship of the desert”

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The camel skeleton was unearthed near the river Danube in Tulln, Lower Austria. Photo: Alfred Galik/Vetmeduni Vienna
The camel skeleton was unearthed near the river Danube in Tulln, Lower Austria. Photo: Alfred Galik/Vetmeduni Vienna

Researchers who unearthed a 17th-century animal skeleton in a cellar in southern Austria at first thought they had stumbled upon a horse.

It turned out to be a camel, with the evidence suggesting it may have been ridden, possibly as part of the Ottoman Empire’s army.

Camel bones have been found in Europe dating back to the Roman period. Isolated bones or partly preserved skeletons are known from Mauerbach near Vienna as well as from Serbia and Belgium. But a complete camel skeleton is unique for Central Europe.

The shape of the skull and the skeleton pointed to the camel being a hybrid. Photo: Alfred Galik/University Veterinary Medicine, Vienna
The shape of the skull and the skeleton pointed to the camel being a hybrid. Photo: Alfred Galik/Vetmeduni Vienna

The camel was unearthed as construction began on a new shopping centre in Tulln. Its remains were found in a backfilled cellar that yielded large quantities of domestic refuse, such as animal bones and ceramics.

Archaeozoologist Alfred Galik, from the Institute for Anatomy, Histology and Embryology at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, said it was initially thought to be a horse or cattlebeast.

“But one look at the cervical vertebrae, the lower jaw and the metacarpal bones immediately revealed that this was a camel,” he said.

The Ottoman army used camels for transportation and as riding animals, additional to horses. When resources were scarce, soldiers sometimes ate the camels, but the skeleton found in Tulln was complete.

“This means that the animal was not killed and then butchered,” Galik said.

“It may have been acquired as part of an exchange.

“The animal was certainly exotic for the people of Tulln. They probably didn’t know what to feed it or whether one could eat it. Perhaps it died a natural death and was then buried without being used.”

Extensive DNA analysis showed that the animal was a hybrid. Its mother was a dromedary and its father a Bactrian camel. Genetic analysis confirmed what the scientists saw in the camel’s form and structure.

The camel skeleton lies exposed at the site in Tulin. Photo: Ute Scholz
The camel skeleton lies exposed at the site in Tulin. Photo: Ute Scholz

Several of its physical features were those of a dromedary, others of a Bactrian camel.

“Such crossbreeding was not unusual at the time. Hybrids were easier to handle, more enduring and larger than their parents,” Galik said. “These animals were especially suited for military use.”

The camel was male, around seven years old and most likely castrated. They found wear and other physical evidence on the skeleton that suggested the animal may have been ridden.

A coin – a so-called “Rechenpfenning” – from the time of Louis XIV dates the find to the years between 1643 and 1715. A medicine bottle containing theriacum, a medieval remedy from the chemist’s shop, “Apotheke zur Goldenen Krone” in Vienna, was also found at the site. The pharmacy existed between 1628 and 1665, which helped date the site with further precision.

In the summer of 1683, Ottoman troops are known to have tried to reach Vienna and combed the region south of the Danube. Tulln was surrounded and besieged by the army, but the town itself was never conquered.

“It is impossible to reconstruct how the camel arrived within the town walls of Tulln,” Galik and his colleagues reported in the open-access journal, PLOS ONE.

“Its appearance might be linked to an exchange of local people with the troops or the Ottoman army simply left it behind.

“Apparently, the citizens took it inside the town, where they probably kept and displayed it as an ‘exotic animal’. Further archaeological research might answer this question.

“It seems quite conceivable that being not familiar with behavioral and feeding habits, and the scarcity of food in wartimes, people did not keep it for long.”

Galik was joined in the research by Elmira Mohandesan, Gerhard Forstenpointner, Ute Maria Scholz, Emily Ruiz, Martin Krenn and Pamela Burger.

Galik A, Mohandesan E, Forstenpointner G, Scholz UM, Ruiz E, et al. (2015) A Sunken Ship of the Desert at the River Danube in Tulln, Austria. PLoS ONE 10(4): e0121235. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0121235
The full study can be read here

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