The remains of lynxes are rare in archaeological sites, so the discovery of the skeleton of an adult male lynx accompanied by four big dogs in a large pit from the Migration Period at the Zamárdi–Kútvölgyi-dűlő II site in Hungary is an exceptional find.

The residents of the rural area of Zamárdi buried the lynx with the four dogs towards the end of the 5th and beginning of the 6th century, in an ancient pit of Roman origin.

Analysis of the skeletons showed that the size of the lynx was comparable to that of the large dogs with which it was buried, although slightly smaller than the “elite” large dogs found in high-status Lombard graves of the same time.

(a) Zamárdi (red dot) in relation to the area of Lake Balaton in Roman times (light blue) and the estimated larger extent of the lake in the 16th-17th century (dark blue; after Sümegi et al., 2007, p. 246). (b) Inset showing the studied section of Hungary in contemporary Central Europe
(a) Zamárdi (red dot) in relation to the area of Lake Balaton in Roman times (light blue) and the estimated larger extent of the lake in the 16th-17th century (dark blue; after Sümegi et al., 2007, p. 246). (b) Inset showing the studied section of Hungary in contemporary Central Europe. Credit: Erika Gál et al.

While the physical reconstruction of the lynx helped assess the uniqueness of this deposit, its exact nature remains enigmatic. Possible interpretations of this unique deposit range from practical/utilitarian to ritualistic. Although no signs of defleshing were found, the lynx may have been hunted for pest control or sport. Alternatively, it could have been a victim of a deadly confrontation with the dogs, rendering its valuable fur useless.

The locality of Zamárdi was situated on the border between the Roman provinces of Pannonia Prima and Valeria. With the decline of the Empire, Germanic tribes occupied the area, and the dating of 430-550 AD for the deposit coincides with the occupation of the Lombards, a Germanic group that arrived in the Danube region in the late 5th century and remained until 568 AD.

The settlement was located on the southern shore of Lake Balaton. During Roman times, routes from south to north circumvented Lake Balaton, although only sections of the eastern road remain. Zamárdi was located just 15 km west of the ancient fortified Roman settlement of Ságvár, which controlled this eastern route.

(a) The horizontal arrangement of the four dogs and the lynx below in pit 370. Note the separate location of dog 1. (b) The west-east vertical section of the pit. Note the separate location of dog 1. (b) The west-east vertical section of the pit. Depths are measured from the excavation surface. E, east; W, west. The lynx skeleton is marked in red in both views.
(a) The horizontal arrangement of the four dogs and the lynx below in pit 370. Note the separate location of dog 1. (b) The west-east vertical section of the pit. Note the separate location of dog 1. (b) The west-east vertical section of the pit. Depths are measured from the excavation surface. E, east; W, west. The lynx skeleton is marked in red in both views. Credit: Erika Gál et al.

The Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) found in Zamárdi is the only complete archaeological skeleton of this species known to date in Europe. Comparable finds include an almost complete individual from the medieval period in Vác, Hungary, and articulated bones of the hind limbs found in a Roman castle from the 1st-3rd century AD in Alphen aan den Rijn, the Netherlands.

Animal burials have attracted considerable attention in archaeology, but known examples offer little help in understanding this case. However, unusual deposits of domestic animals, sometimes combined with human burials, have been documented, associated with Germanic peoples in ancient Pannonia.

The perception of the lynx in the provincial corners of Pannonia after the fall of the Roman Empire is uncertain, given the cultural diversity of the region. While in Scandinavian folklore the lynx was associated with the goddess Freyja, medieval sources reflect hostility towards this mysterious and “bloodthirsty” nocturnal predator.


Sources

Erika Gál, László Bartosiewicz, et al., A fifth- to sixth-century CE lynx (Lynx lynx L., 1758) skeleton from Hungary 2: Stature and archaeological interpretations. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, doi.org/10.1002/oa.3289


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