Even the smallest horses were ridden in past centuries, Lithuanian study finds

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A human and horse burial in Paduobė-Šaltaliūnė III, an archaeological site in Lithuania.
A human and horse burial in Paduobė-Šaltaliūnė III, an archaeological site in Lithuania. Photo V. Steponaitis, 2006; via https://doi.org/10.3390/ani12121549

A 1200-year custom of burying domesticated horses in Lithuania has provided researchers with a unique opportunity to assess their size through the centuries, revealing that the region’s equines were generally small by today’s standards.

The tradition of burying horses in Lithuania was the longest-lasting such custom in Europe, Giedrė Piličiauskienė and her fellow researchers noted in the journal Animals. It resulted in about 2000 known horse burials.

The tradition of burying a sacrificed horse alongside a human has been widespread in Europe and Asia since pre-Christian times. The horse is the closest animal to humans in burial contexts and the only animal sometimes buried in the same manner as a human.

The number of horses found in Lithuania burial sites varies greatly, ranging from one horse in a burial mound to 200 to 300 individuals in the largest cemeteries of the Viking and later periods in central Lithuania.

In their study, the researchers measured the bones and age of horses found in the region’s cemeteries and castles between the 3rd and 14th centuries AD. Age estimates were based on teeth.

Almost 400 horse skeletal remains were analyzed, but, because of poor preservation, just over 200 individuals proved suitable for further size and age analysis.

Measurements showed that, in general, the horses in Lithuania in the 3rd to 11th centuries were small compared to those in Central and Western Europe or Scandinavia.

Detail of "March towards the Cross", part of the 14-15th century fresco from Saint-Pierre-le-Jeune in Strasbourg. It depicts states which converted to Christianity in chronological order, the first being the Holy Roman Empire, and the last, Lithuania.
Detail of “March towards the Cross”, part of the 14-15th century fresco from Saint-Pierre-le-Jeune in Strasbourg. It depicts states which converted to Christianity in chronological order, the first being the Holy Roman Empire, and the last, Lithuania. From A. Bumblauskas Senosios Lietuvos istorija. via Wikipedia

Those from the 3rd to 7th centuries, represented by 16 animals from six burial sites, ranged from 125.4cm to 137.7cm (about 12.1hh to 13.2hh) at the withers. The average was 130.2cm (12.3hh).

Findings for horses from the 8/9th century to the 11/12th century, known as the Viking period, were based mainly on more than 100 animals from the Marvelė burial site. The average withers height for horses from this period was 123.6cm (about 12½hh). The shortest was 112.3cm and the the tallest 141cm (about 13.3hh).

Later, in the cemeteries of the 12th to 14th centuries, 24 individuals from the Viking era were found, with an average height of 127.2cm (12.2hh). The shortest was 108.2cm (10.2½hh), while the largest was 150.9cm (14.3hh).

The 13th and 14th-century horses from the Vilnius Lower castle and Kernavė were slightly larger, with an average height of 128.1cm and 128.2cm, respectively.

In general, the average withers height of all the horses from the 12 to 14th centuries was 127.9cm.

The largest medieval horses, covering the 12th/13th century to the 14th century, were found in Memelburg, the castle of the Teutonic Order. Here, eight horses’ bones were measured, with an average withers height of 132.8cm (about 13hh).

In general, the Viking period horses were the smallest throughout the 1200 years in Lithuania.

In the 12th to 14th centuries, there was a much greater variety of horses and the expansion of taller individuals, ranging from 140cm to 150cm (13.3hh to 14.3hh) at the withers.

“We tend to consider the Viking period horses with a small variation in size as the typical local horses,” the researchers said.

However, during the 12th to 14th centuries, there were notable changes, with a strong increase in the variety and size of the animals.

Previously, researchers have proposed that the function of large and small horses was different: small local horses were used as pack and draught animals, while 130–140cm (12.3hh to 13.3hh) horses were used by warriors as riding or warhorses.

“However, at least in the case of Lithuanian and Prussian horses, we would disagree with this view.

“The small native horses were undoubtedly also used as riding horses or even warhorses. This is also evidenced by the small horses with a height of only 108–115cm, which were buried in medieval cemeteries up to the end of the 14th century.

“They were buried with bridles, decorations, and sometimes saddles.”

For example, the smallest medieval horse, just 108.2cm at the withers, was found in the grave with the remains of a bridle, a bell, and a saddle, as was the case with most of the horses buried at this particular site.

Small local horses were also used as pack animals, accompanying troops on campaigns.

Turning to age, the researchers found that, from the Viking period, older horses were buried, and this tradition was even more pronounced in the 12th to 14th centuries. In contrast, no horses over 10 years of age were found in the 3rd to 7th century burials.

“In general, the horses in Lithuania in the 3rd to 11th centuries were small compared to those in Central and Western Europe or Scandinavia,” they concluded.

More significant changes can be observed in the Middle Ages.

“In the Middle Ages, the same custom of burying horses with saddles and other equipment was practiced for both very small individuals, 108 to 115cm-tall, and the largest, 140 to 150cm-tall, horses.

“This indicates not only the great variety of horses ridden but also that the local warriors did not avoid using even the smallest local horses.”

The findings, they said, rekindle the debate on the formation of cavalry, the tactics of combat, and the social composition of horsemen in Lithuania.

The study team comprised Piličiauskienė, Laurynas Kurila and Aurelija Zagurskytė and Viktorija Micelicaitė, all with the Department of Archaeology at Lithuania’s Vilnius University; and Žilvinas Ežerinskis, Justina Šapolaitė and Andrius Garbaras, with the Center for Physical Sciences and Technology, part of the Mass Spectrometry Laboratory in Vilnius.

Piličiauskienė, G.; Kurila, L.; Ežerinskis, Ž.; Šapolaitė, J.; Garbaras, A.; Zagurskytė, A.; Micelicaitė, V. Horses in Lithuania in the Late Roman–Medieval Period (3rd–14th C AD) Burial Sites: Updates on Size, Age and Dating. Animals 2022, 12, 1549. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani12121549

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here

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