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Baltic paganism, osteology, and new examinations of zooarchaeological evidence

The BONEZ project applies cutting edge archaeological science techniques to explore the economic, environmental, social, and spiritual dimensions of public ritual amongst the last persisting pagan tribal networks in temperate Europe.


Between the 1st and 14th centuries CE, communities in the Eastern Baltic region were transformed from loosely affiliated pagan tribes to consolidated Christian states. Throughout this period, one of the most ostentatious and well-known cultural practices was the public sacrifice of horses in cemeteries. Archaeologists have studied these horse deposits intensively but paid little attention to ritual uses of other species. Using multiple biomolecular, microscopic, and macroscopic scientific techniques, our project asks:

  1. Were sacrificed animals local or sourced from far distances?
  2. Why were specific animals chosen for sacrifice?
  3. What do these results tell us about the economic and social allocation of resources for public rituals?
  4. Looking at change over time, how might external pressures to convert to Christianity have impacted ritual behaviour in the last years of widespread, elite-sponsored paganism in temperate Europe?


Our main accomplishments are:

  • Identifying through isotope analysis the first long-distance imported horses sacrificed in the Eastern Baltic region from the 11th to 13th centuries CE, most likely transported via ship along established Viking trade routes.
  • Demonstrating through genetic analysis that approximately a third of all sacrificed horses were mares, whereas 150 years of prior research argued that stallions were exclusively sacrificed in Baltic cemeteries.
  • Discovering that one of the earliest introduced domesticated cats (confirmed genetically) to the region was buried in a human grave during the Roman Period.
  • Producing the first bioavailable strontium mapping for northeastern Poland, a vital component to modern archaeological studies of past mobility.

BONEZ is an international effort including collaborators at 14 institutions in six countries that received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 893072.

Illustration by Mirosław Kuzma.

Principal investigators

Picture of Richard Madgwick

Dr Richard Madgwick

Reader in Archaeological Science

+44 29208 74239
Dr Katherine French

Dr Katherine French

Marie-Sklowdowska Curie Research Fellow