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Book: Animal Iconography in the Archaeological Record

Chapter: Extraordinary creatures - how do we identify prehistoric animals?

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.38888


Animal figurines and representations often attract our attention and are in the centre of archaeological interpretations. Identifying the species of animals represented in art helps us to study how past societies understood their environment, symbolized their social links, expressed their moral and ethical values, etc. The central question that forms the base for further interpretations is how to identify the animal who is represented either in a figurine, a pendant or depicted on artefacts?

While clear methodology exists to identify species on the basis of osseous collections, interpreting of art is more complicated. If sources for mental culture are not known we tend to identify animal representations according to our modern knowledge of biology. Often enough the rational interpretations are preferred as these seem more justified and reliable. However, such a base may be erroneous in interpreting past cultures. Identifying animals in art often depends on the availability of other sources besides archaeological finds, like mythology, written documents etc. This article explores the animal representations with vague interpretations from the Late Iron Age (800–1200 AD) archaeology from the Eastern Baltic. It will be demonstrated how the safely rational identifications often ignore some details of the art and thus animal representations are interpreted in the frames
of modern taxonomy. However, the alternative interpretations, including also the mythological creatures, change the further interpretations considerably, opening also new discussions like social links between distant territories or animals as symbols for moral values.

Chapter Contributors

  • Tõnno Jonuks ( - tjonuks) 'Estonian Literary Museum'